facility safety

Metal Detectors Aren't a Magical Safety Solution

There are no two ways about it: school shootings are terrifying. Students, parents, teachers, and communities are horrified by the thought of someone violating what we’ve always thought of as one of our safest spaces by firing a weapon with the intent to kill.

Criminologists point to statistics confirming that the number of such shootings really isn’t on the rise, noting that schools continue to be among the safest places for young people. Still, given the explosion of media and social media coverage, the average person can’t be faulted for thinking America faces some kind of violent new epidemic.

After this spring’s highly publicized incidents in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, and another in Noblesville, Indiana -- not far from our company’s offices -- there’s been an outcry calling for “hardening” school buildings to thwart potential shooters. In particular, many well-meaning people have insisted that the best solution is to place metal detectors at the doors of all schools. Indiana’s Governor recently made hand-held metal detectors available to all of the state’s schools at no cost to the districts.

Metal detectors have their place in security, but they’re not the foolproof or magical solution many advocates believe them to be. First, metal detectors are personnel-intensive devices. To provide adequate protection, they have to be staffed any time anyone enters the building. That not only includes the times when large groups of students are arriving for school, but throughout the day, and for high schools, into the evening and weekends.

If the swim team arrives for practice at 5:30 a.m., somebody has to be there to scan the members and their gym bags. If practice for the spring musical runs all evening, someone has to be there to scan all the participants. The same goes for sporting events. If there’s any gap in scanning, it creates an opportunity for someone to smuggle a weapon into the building and place it in a locker or other location for later access.

Not only do trained people have to be on hand to perform the scans, there has to be an established process when the detector identifies a suspicious person or object. Who will be responsible for frisking students or searching their bags? Will that interfere with the flow of students coming into the school?

Nor are all weapons made of metal. Even with every door protected by a metal detector, students could bring weapons made of wood, plastic, or other materials without detection. That creates a false sense of security.

Finally, if metal detectors placed at building entrances create a crowd of students who are waiting outside to get into the building to be scanned, that crowd becomes what’s known as a “soft” target. It would be easy for someone on the school grounds or in a nearby vehicle to open fire into that crowd with a weapon and inflict mass casualties. That individual wouldn’t even need a gun -- choosing instead to mimic the actions of terrorists in Europe and elsewhere who have simply driven vehicles into crowds.

It isn’t that metal detectors are inherently bad. But they’re not a panacea that will eliminate school shootings. Parents and others want a simple, easy-to-implement strategy to secure their children’s schools, and such an option just doesn’t exist. If it did, law enforcement officials would be leading the movement to use it. The fact that you don’t see police departments and law enforcement experts pushing for simple solutions like metal detectors is that they know better.

Effective school security encompasses several components, many of which can’t be purchased from suppliers. One of the most important is awareness of the hazards and having systems for alerting the authorities to potential threats. In nearly every major school shooting, we’ve later learned that the shooter had made threats or shared plans in advance, yet that information was never passed along to those responsible for security. Schools need a means through which people can safely report concerns about individuals.

In addition, it’s important to address visitor access. In the Parkland incident, the shooter was a former student who had no reason to be in the school, yet he easily gained access to commit his violent act. Would the outcome have been different if he had to obtain access to the building through the office and obtain a pass? Any answer is just speculation, but it’s worth thinking about.

Students and teachers need to be protected, but demanding simple solutions isn’t going to provide safety for everyone. The real answer is replacing rhetoric and social media chatter with thoughtful planning by professionals.

Learn more about school safety best practices.  Contact us.

How a Warrior Views Your Facility

I’m a former big-city violent crimes detective and my wife is also a retired police officer. When we go out to a restaurant, we enter into a little competition that’s so instinctive neither of us notices it’s happening. We both try to grab the seat with the best view of the entire restaurant and its doors, and the loser of that little battle remains just a little uneasy throughout the meal.

If you’ve ever been dining in the neighborhood coffee shop and several uniformed cops come in to grab lunch or dinner, you’ll notice that most walk right past the “prime” tables and take those in the far corner of the room. I’ve conducted many training sessions for law enforcement, and invariably, the first to arrive instinctively take seats in the back corners of the room.

All that behavior is related to what some call a “warrior mentality.” Training and experience combine to heighten awareness of place, environment, and activity. At meals when my wife gets the better seat, I might notice her attention shift for a moment, which tells me that something out of the ordinary has caught her eye. Maybe a couple at another table is in the early stages of what appears to be an argument. Maybe someone who seems out of place has walked in the door and is looking around suspiciously. No matter the reason, her senses have shifted to a higher level of awareness, so she’ll be quicker to react if something happens.

Once that warrior mentality becomes ingrained, you can’t shut it off. Even when I’m sitting in church, I always know where I am in relation to the emergency exit that’s closest to the kids’ area. If something were to happen, I’d be through that door and next to my kids in a heartbeat. When most people go to the mall, they’re looking at displays of merchandise. I’m watching the people around me, looking for anything that just doesn’t seem right.

Some might think that’s a paranoid approach, but it’s not based on imaginary threats. I’ve seen and experienced enough to know that there are real threats out there, and it’s been my sworn responsibility to protect the community from those threats. It was that way when I carried a badge and it’s at the heart of why our company exists.

Adopting a warrior mentality can help you in two different ways. First, it will improve your own protection. If you practice enhancing your awareness of everyday situations, it becomes a habit. You may never encounter a situation in which your personal safety is threatened, but if something does happen, you’ll have more time to prepare and react. People who lack that kind of awareness often freeze in an emergency because their minds are focused on processing what they’re seeing. They think “what should I do?” when the warriors among them think “what needs to be done?” and then do it.

The second way a warrior mentality helps is that it will give you a framework through which you can evaluate the security of your facilities. Whether you’re responsible for an office, a warehouse, a middle school, or a suburban church, spend some time walking through the building and thinking about how a threat may present itself. Then ask yourself how you or anyone else would behave if that threat were to happen. How would they get out, and where would they congregate once outside?

Next, look at the building the way someone who wanted to carry out that threat might do. If a shooter wanted to target a large group, which door would he enter? If someone wanted to steal from your employees, how easy would it be to do that? If an estranged husband wanted to reach his wife who worked or worshipped in your facility, what’s there to deter him?

Once you start looking at facilities through those warrior eyes, you’ll begin to rethink how you do things. For example, your church may want to present a welcoming image to attendees and visitors, but do you really need to leave six exterior doors wide open all Sunday morning? Would it be better to funnel traffic through a couple of entryways and have a “greeter” or two stationed at each who’s eyeing the folks who walk in? A simple deterrent like that may make someone who plans to cause trouble think twice.

You can invest in all sorts of security systems, but one of the most powerful and effective is one you were born with: your eyes. Train them to see like a warrior, and those for whom you’re responsible will be much safer.

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Active Shooters: Stop Reacting, Start Preventing

Every time there’s a shooting at a school or a workplace, the arguments begin. We need more police officers stationed in the buildings. We need to arm teachers or encourage employees to carry handguns. We should invest in smokescreen systems or bulletproof partitions. Everyone should hide from the shooter. Everyone should run from the shooter. Everyone should confront the shooter.

We’re having the wrong argument. Once someone who intends to do harm is inside your school or your business, all you can do is react. And at that point, it’s too late. Whether you run, hide, fight, or something else, your school or business is going to be the site of violence and possibly death, permanently transforming the lives of everyone involved.

Instead of focusing on reacting to a shooter or other intruder’s presence, what we should concentrate on is keeping that shooter out of the school or workplace. If a shooter can’t get into your facility, he or she can’t cause mayhem.

We can learn from the professionals we trust to protect some of the world’s most important people: the U.S. Secret Service. The image that springs to mind is the agent who jumps in front of a would-be assassin, taking a bullet intended for the President, but the Secret Service puts far more effort into making sure people with bad intent don’t get anywhere near the individual they’re protecting. They’ll react if they have to, but far more of their time and energy goes into prevention.

In preparing, we first need to get past the myth that these shootings are random events triggered by someone’s temper or someone who just “snapped.” The FBI has studied shooting extensively, and says “these are not spontaneous, emotion-driven, impulsive crimes emanating from a person’s immediate anger or fear.” The reality is that most of events are not impulsive; they’re coldly and carefully planned.

There’s a parallel in domestic violence cases. The popular “wisdom” is that people who commit violence against family members were “pushed” into it or were “triggered” by something the victim said or did. As a former violent crimes detective, I can tell you that’s nonsense. There’s a discernable pattern that offenders follow. When law enforcement and the judicial system know that pattern and intervene in the early stages, there’s a marked reduction in homicide and other violent acts. (Another reason domestic violence is important to mention is that it’s actually been related to 54 percent of mass shootings.)

Prevention involves several components. Staff members need to be able to recognize the signs and behaviors that usually precede a violent act -- like the threats and other behaviors that have been observed before 85 percent of school shootings.

We have to create a culture in which people aren’t afraid to report suspicious behaviors. Too many people are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or accusing someone who may be innocent. After most shootings, we hear that the shooter showed signs of being dangerous, but nobody was willing to speak up. Similarly, we have to share information. For example, school leaders need to be in regular conversations with local police. Police in one community need to talk with the county sheriff and their neighboring departments. And all parties to be trained in assessing threats through the use of lethality indicators.

Training is one of the most important components, and it can’t be a one-and-done approach. One of the best kinds is the “tabletop” simulation in which multiple parties gather to discuss a simulated scenario. For a school, the simulation might involve the building administrators, the superintendent, the head of security, and representatives from the local police and fire departments. An outside facilitator narrates a scenario, and everyone discusses their role and how they would respond. (I’d also recommend involving the head custodian, who knows the building inside and out, and who will have a practical approach to identifying flaws in the other participants’ responses.)

If you really want to protect the occupants of your buildings, don’t waste time in philosophical arguments over what they should do if an intruder is present. Instead, do everything you can to keep that intruder from getting in there in the first place.

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