If an armed assailant started shooting in your facility, could you, your employees and your organization survive? When we ask organizations that question, we get many different answers that range from an absolute ‘yes’ to ‘I have no idea.’

Many of our clients even tell us that it could never happen because they have layers of protection such as a no weapons policy, locked doors and surveillance cameras. These layers of protection are great, but they are only one part of an effective plan for protecting an organization and its employees from an act of violence.

Currently most organizations take a reactive approach to addressing these concerns. We believe in having a proactive prevention and response plan that goes beyond a checklist or survival manual. Does your plan include training that empowers all employees to: recognize a threat, effectively respond, and survive an act of workplace violence?


Recognizing a Threat

A 2019 U.S. Secret Service study indicates that 41% of assailants demonstrated observable behavior changes prior to the attack. The same study reveals that 87% of assailants experienced at least one stressor.

Although these early warning signs are often present prior to the incident, they are rarely reported. There are a multitude of reasons or excuses given for not reporting concerning behaviors. Learning to recognize these warning signs and creating a culture where reporting concerning behavior changes is accepted and expected is an important first step in prevention.

Awareness training of what constitutes a concerning behavior and how the organization is prepared to assist an employee is needed.

Some of the early warning signs you should be looking for are development of personal grievances, uncharacteristic drop in work performance, inappropriate interest in weapons and acts of violence, and experiencing a recent significant personal loss.

Most assailants also experienced multiple exterior stressors like financial strain, disciplinary action taken by an employer, and relationship issues. Although organizations often have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place to help employees overcome these personal issues, most employees are not aware of the EAP, what it can help them with, or how to activate it.

The availability of an anonymous reporting system is an important factor in encouraging employees to report concerning behaviors. Regular training for all employees on how to recognize concerning behaviors, how to report these behaviors and the benefits of an employee assistance program are a must to any effective workplace violence prevention program.

Recognizing early warning signs is important. It is also important that the immediate signs of violence are recognized as well. Increasing situational awareness is how to accomplish this.

Often people that were present when the first shots rang out said they heard the shots but did nothing to respond because they did not know it was gunfire.

Think about a manufacturing plant and the variety of loud bangs and noises you hear daily. Educating employees on how to identify gunfire in their work environment is an effective way to overcome this problem.

You must also have a good way to communicate immediate threats to allow people to respond appropriately. Mass communication through a PA system, handheld radios, or a notification app are all great ways to quickly spread information. The information should be spread using plain language not secret codes that could be easily misunderstood or miscommunicated.


Responding to the Threat

Commonly, individuals will indicate that if a shooting happened, they would hide behind their desk or a filing cabinet. Since most desks and filing cabinets are not bulletproof, taking passive actions like these are not your best option if you intend to survive.

We believe training should empower employees to develop the necessary habits to make survival the outcome, not a coincidence. Equipping your employees with proven response options makes this possible. Getting out and removing yourself from the area affected by the violence gives you the best chance for survival.

Organizations typically have great markings for fire escape paths but in an active assailant event this option may not be the safest way out. Building familiarity of alternative exits is needed in case common exit routes place an individual in unnecessary danger. It is not possible to exit in all situations, so understanding how to barricade a given area and limit access by the assailant is an additional option.

We can’t stop there because, as hard as we try to prevent access, the bad guy may still make it in, so we need to be prepared to fight. Many popular training programs only encourage fighting as a last resort. This is great until your survival hinges on fighting as the first and only option. Most of these attacks are committed by a solo gunman.

Identifying improvised weapons and using power in numbers are options that should be considered quickly to end violence. Seeking the assailant is never a good idea, but you may come face to face with the person and need to fight right away. Training individuals to only fight as a last resort might cause hesitation and lead to death or injury that would have been avoided if swift aggressive action was taken immediately. Everyone may not be comfortable fighting an armed assailant, therefore regular training is important. Simple methods can be taught that educate people on proven methods to gain control of a weapon and the assailant.


Surviving the Threat

Once the attack stops, we must shift from responding to the threat to surviving: surviving as individuals and as an organization. Emergency responders will be there to help in this step, but they may not be there as fast as you would expect. Law enforcement will be there within minutes, but their primary objective will be to find the assailant and stop him from hurting anyone else. Fire and EMS workers will also be there, but they cannot enter until it is safe for them to do so. In some cases, this can take more than 20 minutes.

According to the Hartford Consensus, having bleeding control equipment and training people to use it can significantly decrease the number of deaths. In instances that have resulted in many injured people, professional first responders have used bleeding control equipment that was already on site when they ran out of what they brought in with them.

In the days and weeks after the violence, individual mental health recovery and organizational survival should be the focus. Expect the physical facility to be shut down for an extended period during the criminal investigation and clean-up of the crime scene.

Business continuity plans often cover natural disasters or civil disturbances but often overlook acts of violence in the workplace. If you don’t have a solid business continuity plan that addresses surviving an act of violence, you may never re-open.

The idea of training employees to respond to acts of violence in the workplace is not new. Security professionals too often fall back on outdated or ineffective practices to save money or because “nothing has happened yet.” With all the stress and division in our country currently, there has never been a better time to evaluate your organization’s readiness. Does your current training prepare every employee to recognize early warning signs so you can prevent future attacks; are the response options proven; and have you taken reasonable steps to increase the survival odds for each employee? The cost of providing minimal training that just checks the box could be of significant value. The value of providing training proven to empower individuals to survive cannot be measured.