Active Threats in the Workplace: What Are Some Keys to Success?

Any ordinary day can turn extraordinary. Just ask the growing number of victims who started a day that promised to be like every other; yet instead, they ended up smack in the middle of a violent incident. Active threat incidents can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time—in a store, an office building, in shopping malls, on campus, in open parking lots, in movie theaters and even on military bases. The time to think about what you would do in an emergency should not be as the events unravel before you, but rather well before the incident occurs.

First responders (law enforcement, fire, EMTs) take, on average, 8 to 10 minutes to arrive on an active threat scene. Those 8 to 10 minutes are an eternity if you are in the pathway of an individual on a rampage. Those crucial first minutes of the attack may well determine who survives and who does not. Often, by the time the first responders arrive at the scene, the assailant will have already achieved his objective and committed suicide, or staged himself for the final gun battle with law enforcement. What this means is that the average citizen is now the new first responder; that our survivability from a violent attack will depend on the preparedness, confidence and capabilities of our coworkers, our employees, our neighbors and our friends. Security is not only personal, but it also makes common sense. 

Violence in the workplace, including active shooter events, is no longer a rarity, nor confined to any particular type or place of business. A list of active shooter incidents that occurred between 2000 and mid-2016 was recently published by the FBI and illustrates the diversity of targets and, when known, motivations. Generally speaking, active threats are defined as incidents involving active shooters, terrorism and workplace violence.

The Run–Hide–Fight platform, developed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, provides basic guidance to the public for responding to shootings and other types of threats. This national campaign provides universal guidance but is not meant to be strictly linear in nature. The Run-Hide-Fight options may be limited by the circumstances of the active threat, but make no mistake—choices will need to be made. The best choice, always, is to get away from the attackers and signal for assistance; however, if that option is not practical, or could further endanger the lives of individuals by drawing attention to them or putting them directly in the line of fire, using any form of concealment is recommended. These hiding places should be identified in advance, be easy to reach and not encumbered by excess storage of personal property, for instance under a desk or in a locked closet. The last option when all avenues of escape have been limited and concealment is not possible is to engage an aggressor with any form of weapon that is available. Common, ordinary items in the workplace—to include a fire extinguisher, desk chair and/or desk items—can quickly be repurposed and used as a weapon, potentially impeding the movement of an aggressor and gaining the advantage of time and distance.

Why Security Sense Makes Common Sense
When individuals are prepared, they are also confident and capable of responding quickly and appropriately; if they have planned, practiced and, most importantly, accepted the fact that violence can occur where we work, where we learn, where we find recreation and where we worship, they will know how to respond. There are many common-sense safety practices already entrenched in our everyday lives that contribute to the overall safety in society—obeying traffic signals, wearing seat belts, using smoke detectors—yet securing our personal safety has somehow been relegated to someone else, usually first responders. Security should be embraced as not only a personal responsibility, but as a welcome obligation, as routine as buckling up or brushing your teeth. Security sense is common sense and should be a part of our everyday life. Here are a few common-sense tips to help you stay out of harm’s way.

  • Be Aware of Surroundings. Developing a sense of awareness for what is going on around us is the first step to preventing or avoiding a violent incident. People often miss important early warning indicators that could identify a person on the pathway to violence because they are themselves distracted or just not paying attention to what is going on around them—unusual coworker behavior, an escalating conflict between employees and/or supervisors or a stressful potential layoff situation. Observing human behavior and recognizing an abnormal behavior when you see one can be the first warning sign that something may be about to happen. It’s not just paying attention to those gut instincts when something is off, but also acting on them.
  • Find the Exits. Before a movie begins, suggesting that patrons locate the exits is standard procedure for theaters. This common-sense practice should hold true for the workplace as well. All personnel should be familiar with the closest exits, no matter where they are currently located in the building. For example, depending on which floor you are on when an incident occurs, a window might serve as an emergency exit. However, if workers cannot exit quickly and safely, they should immediately seek refuge in a room that they can secure from the inside.
  • Secure and Harden the Location. Barricading, locking, and/or tying a door off are the first steps to "hardening" an area. Lights should be turned off and blinds should be closed. Cell phones, particularly alerting tones, should be silenced and illumination minimized to prevent unintentional signals to an aggressor that people are concealed nearby. Texts and email can still be sent to summon outside assistance.
  • Use Everyday Items as Weapons. What can be used as a weapon in a worker's immediate proximity? Fire extinguishers, letter openers, scissors, umbrellas can all be repurposed and used as weapons. Raising a chair in defense can catch an assailant off-guard; and simple door wedges kept nearby every door can be inserted to prevent the attacker from entering an otherwise unlockable door.
  • Have a plan. Recently, Dorian DeSantis, a senior instructor with Kiernan Group Holdings and former Washington Metropolitan Police Department SWAT team member, conducted a security exercise at a scientific facility. This full-scale exercise tested law enforcement's response, facility notification procedures, and employee response. As DeSantis walked into one room where five scientists wearing masks, gloves, and surgical gowns continued working on an experiment, he asked them what they would do if a shooter made it into their lab. The scientists calmly stated that they had a plan and were committed to do what they needed save their lives; one pointed to a bucket of acid and an array of surgical knives, which they were prepared to use on an attacker. The fact is that they had thought through what was available to them within their environment and were confident that they could use these items as personal defense if required.

The Right Mindset as a Key to Success
Within most occupations, there are essentially blueprints for professional success. These blueprints identify technical skillsets from entry positions to executive level, provide metrics to assess career progress and develop training programs designed to facilitate employee forward momentum as well as augment material job experience. While qualitative in nature, there are also gauges of professional development for mature interpersonal skills, established leadership style, creative vision and a mindset predicated on building the success of the business. These same measures can be applied to preparation for active threat incidents.   

A key to increasing workplace resiliency is having an integrated response plan that is practiced and tested regularly by the personnel throughout the organization. Complete familiarity with the plan and knowledge of alternate options when improvisation is required—an egress path is suddenly blocked or access to predetermined assembly location is directly in the pathway of the attacker—becomes essential to survival. These are all skill sets that can be learned and measured and improved upon through practice and evaluation.

One such approach, the Preparedness Without Paranoia concept, is predicated on the fact that understanding the modern threat environment does not have to be an intimidating or overwhelming task. From small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, the resiliency of any organization in a threatening situation depends on the extent to which its employees are prepared, confident and capable of reacting appropriately and effectively.

In this way, Preparedness Without Paranoia seeks to foster and develop an educated and engaged workforce through teaching heightened situational awareness and increasing everyone’s security efficacy. More specifically, Preparedness Without Paranoia emphasizes the importance of understanding today’s threat environment, recognizing telltale signs of an evolving threat and empowering people to take effective action.

Kathleen L. Kiernan, Ed.D. is the CEO and Founder of Kiernan Group Holdings, Inc. (KGH, Alexandria, Va.). She oversees KGH's work as an intelligence, law-enforcement and national security consulting, training and problem-solving firm that provides tailored solutions to today’s most complex challenges. She has innovated the concept of Preparedness Without Paranoia™, which is predicated on the fact that understanding the modern threat environment does not have to be an intimidating or overwhelming task. She is a 29-year veteran of federal law enforcement and previously served as the Assistant Director for the Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), where she was responsible for the design and implementation of an intelligence-led organizational strategy to mine and disseminate data related to explosives, firearms and illegal tobacco diversion, the traditional and non-traditional tools of terrorism. She completed her doctorate in Education at Northern Illinois University and her Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence at the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington, D.C.

Posted on Aug 10, 2017


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