The horror is almost too much to fathom. Thousands of parents sent their kids off to school in the morning and learned by phone, text, tweet or post that their child was, or may have been, the victim of another mass shooting. We mourn the loss of 17 souls cut off in their youth, we pray for the full recovery of the injured and our hearts and prayers go out to the survivors and their families. This is a time for all Americans to come together as one family.
The most effective emergency response plans are those that are constantly reviewed, critiqued and improved (See more about evolving plans here). JCRC-NY has a dedicated webpage: www.jcrcny.org/activeshooter with many resources to help organizations plan active shooter responses.
While there are still many details left to be learned from this episode, those of us who are responsible for the safety and security of those in our institutions and organizations have to ask ourselves what can we learn to improve our plans and our preparedness. Here are some thoughts to consider as you review your active shooter plans or make new ones:
- There is no such thing as a perfect plan. According to media reports, the shooter at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was a former student. As such he had a lot of information on the layout of the building, the students and staff, and the emergency procedures (he may have even participated in an active shooter drill). He also reportedly attended anti-government-extremist militia training (Click to the ADL information here). His plan was well-conceived and and he spent time and money to aquire what he needed to lethally carry it out.
- No matter what, preparation and training helps. President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower observed, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Plans that detail every possible eventuality are often too cumbersome to execute. People must clearly know who is in charge, what they can do, and how to get the resources they need to respond to an emergency. Organizations that have plans; train staff and users; practice with drills; identify and supply resources; and critique and revise their plans on an ongoing basis are more likely to save lives when an emergency arises. Please consider that an incident, such as the one in Florida, should be viewed as an opportunity to take your existing plan off the shelf, dust it off and use this scenario to revise and upgrade your plan. Tabletops with participants ranging from the security and maintanance staffs to the CEO of the organization should sit down — with local law enforcement present — for such a review.
- Prepare for times of heightened vulnerability. Many organizations’ plans and exercises are limited the most frequent scenarios, e.g., all of the kids in class at 9:30 AM. That’s a good first step. The Florida attack took advantage of one of the most chaotic times of the school day: dismissal. Make sure that your security posture adapts for those chaotic times (e.g., have extra staff at the front door during arrivals and dismissals so that your security staff can concentrate on security rather than helping people with their strollers). Plan and drill for the non-regular situations, e.g., arrivals and dismissals, cafeteria time, after school programs, assemblies and special events.
- Identify potential problems on an ongoing basis. According to media reports the shooter had been expelled from the school for disciplinary reasons. That should be a red flag. Did anyone recognize him and try to keep him out of the building? Students noticed disturbing posts on Instagram. Did they feel comfortable enough to pass the information along to the appropriate parties? Other examples of problemmatic situations are people in the midst of messy custody disputes, people suspected of contemplating suicide and terminated employees. Organizations should have protocols in place that create the expectation that people noticing something should report it, even though they might think that “it could be nothing”. There should be procedures in place to evaluate the information and call in professionals, e.g., school psychologists, and/or law enforcement agencies. Finally, security should be notified and have specific orders as to how to handle a situation if a potentially problemmatic turns up.
- Do you have what you need? Lockdowns are difficult if you haven’t identified and equipped safe spaces. Do you have a plan and the technology to communicate instantly to all of your constituencies? Do you have on staff someone who is a trained EMT or paramedic who can respond before the first responders?
- Empower your leaders. Too many organizations view active shooters and other emergencies from the top down. We’ve seen too many plans that include, as a first step, “Go find Rabbi Plony”. There will rarely be time to consult and coordinate your response. In the event of an emergency, make sure that your staff know what their best options are (based on their training), have the resources available and are empowered to make the best choice possible under the circumstances. Hesitation could prove to be fatal. Technology, such as messaging apps, walkie-talkies, panic buttons can help the incident leaders and law enforcement develop a better response.
- Access control is critical. Once a shooter is in the building things can go very wrong, very fast. Have protocols for regular users, staff, visitors, tradespeople and deliveries and more (see JCRC-NY’s Sample Building Access Policies & Procedures). All doors should locked until a person is identified and authorized via video/audio intercoms. Your access control systems should notify security personnel when a secondary door is opened so the door can be monitored.
- Build a culture of security. We can’t say this enough. It may be polite to hold a locked door open for another person approaching the building, but this practice undermines your security protocols. Everyone in the building must feel responsible for the security of others. All those using your building should maintain security awareness and be willing to step forward and report if something “just doesn’t look right.”
- If you see something, say something. Everyone should feel responsible to report suspicious activity. At JCRC-NY we regularly pick up the phone and the caller says, “I don’t know if this is anything, but …” People should not only be encouraged to report, but they should feel comfortable to do so. The investigation of the Toro brothers began after someone at the Harlem Charter School where one of them was employed saw something and said something. Make it part of your security culture.