Sometimes an incomprehensible and unthinkable event causes our entire nation to grieve. The Las Vegas shooting on October 1 was such an event. These incidents also serve as a reminder of the increasing threat of violence and the random nature of the selection of victims, and that active shooter incidents can happen anywhere, at any time.
If you were going to take a group of colleagues out to lunch, you’d ask them to put on their seat belts when they got into the car. You’d also counsel these same colleagues to get regular medical checkups and to have insurance to protect them from risks. Following the same logic, you should help your colleagues prepare for an active shooter threat in the workplace. Just as putting on a seat belt doesn’t mean you plan to get into an accident, preparing and training for a workplace threat doesn’t mean such an incident will occur. You should do absolutely everything you can to prevent or stop bad things from happening to you, your company, your employees and your customers.
Here we share the warning signs and motivations for active shooter incidents as well as a brief overview of survival tactics. This information is not meant to be comprehensive, but is intended to raise awareness among employers and HR staff and encourage preparedness and planning for a threatening situation.
Motivation of active shooters and pre-incident indicators
There is a range of reasons and motivations for active shooter incidents. Experts can, however, identify some trends and indicators. Characteristics may include:
- Victims: An individual may feel bullied in an environment (including the workplace) or be involved in a domestic dispute and want to put an end to pain and suffering.
- Mental illness: While mental illness alone is not a pre-incident indicator, combined with other pressures it could lower an individual’s barriers and justify a violent act in his or her mind.
- Terrorism-related ideology: An individual can be working on behalf of an organization, may be a sympathizer who wants to be noticed, or could be a home-grown violent extremist.
Employees typically do not “snap,” but display indicative behavior over time and repeatedly. Warning signs may include:
- Increased and unexplained absenteeism.
- A decline in appearance and lack of hygiene.
- Withdrawal from work activities and relationships with co-workers.
- Overreaction and resistance to changes in the workplace.
- Noticeable mood swings.
- Explosive outbursts of anger or rage.
- Unfocused behavior that appears to be due to alcohol or drug abuse.
Discussions of personal or financial problems, suicide, paranoia, violent crimes, or firearms.
One of the most critical things an employer can do is to establish a culture that supports open communication. Intuitive co-workers may notice pre-incident indicators or warning signs and need a clear path to follow to report them.
Surviving an active shooter incident
In the event of an active shooter in the workplace, the three survival strategies are: Run. Hide. Fight.
The best strategy in an active shooter situation is to run. When possible, help others to safety and run to safety. Putting as much time and distance between you and an active shooter is critical. Leave personal belongings and flee the scene. Once you are in a safe location, call 911.
If you cannot get out safely, hide. If the escape route is blocked, find a place to hide, such as an office, that you can secure. Ensure that you have enough room to move. If you cannot lock the door, barricade it with furniture or cables to restrict its movement. Be sure to silence phones and turn off the lights. Do not open the door until you are sure that the person on the other side is a police officer.
If you cannot run or hide and you are in imminent danger, fight. Remember this is a last resort with the goal of incapacitating or subduing the active shooter until the police arrive. Whether alone or in a group, improvising weapons will increase the effectiveness of your efforts. Common improvised weapons include sticks, pipes, lamps, chairs, books, scissors, broken glass, and fire extinguishers.
What employers can do
Consider when you were a child in school and participated in drills. If you were in California, you may have drilled for earthquakes. In other states, you drilled to prepare for hurricanes or tornadoes. We all participated in fire drills. The idea is to make the response to a threatening situation second nature so that you just “do” without thinking. The workplace is no different.
Run drills for various threatening situations so that employees know the three-step response of run, hide, fight.
Institute anti-harassment and bullying training to help employees spot situations and report incidents to the appropriate person or department. Establish policies and an open environment in which employees feel comfortable coming forward and reporting incidents of bullying or harassment. It is also important to have a confidential internal process for employees to report suspicious behavior.