Active shooter preparation: Don’t cross the line of traumatization
Active shooter incidents in communities, workplaces and public venues erupt, too regularly, as shocking reminders of the vulnerability to violence. Through the first nine months of 2019, a 50 percent increase in mass shootings have been reported, with at least 21 this year compared to 14 in the corresponding period in 2018. Across the country, small towns are affected as well as larger cities.
Training and preparation for the possibility of an active killer certainly saves lives. One survivor of the October 2018 Las Vegas massacre reported how such training helped them make it through the sudden chaos of that tragedy. Participation in drills at the facility where people work or attend school is a key factor in gaining the situational awareness for responding effectively to a violent event. Both adults and children need to know what to do to best protect themselves, and public officials, first responder agencies and others in authority must be clear on the steps necessary to save lives. In attempting to train people for active killer incidents, some organizations have conducted realistic drills. While making training authentic improves preparation to some degree, drills that are too realistic can be extremely traumatizing.
Some approaches to active killer training have included showing video of actual events, exposing the group to sounds of live gunfire (usually by law enforcement officers firing blank rounds), even participants being shot with plastic projectiles. Those who have been through such drills are often significantly traumatized and may wind up less prepared for an actual incident. An employee, student or community member does not need to be trained the way a law enforcement officer might need.
Active killer training and drills should not become opportunities for workplace injuries and potential liabilities to the organization. Realistic drills using “soft” projectiles frequently result in a variety of injuries from bruises to post traumatic stress. Training that results in confusion and panic have led to serious trip and fall injuries, fractures and head trauma. Training conduct should always be viewed from a risk management perspective, during planning, scheduling and implementation.
The key, however, is to focus on the activities that will convey confidence and empower the audience. When working with a topic as sensitive and disturbing as active killers, it is very easy to cross the line from confidence and empowerment to fear and traumatization. If fear gets in the way of the skills being taught, the skill immediately has a negative connotation associated with it and consequently has a far less positive impact on the learner.
One of the hardest components to try to teach on this topic has to do with how to deal with, and prepare for, your own fear of the moment as well as your body’s mental and physical response to it. We take the approach of teaching how to breathe, understanding how perception of time tends to slow dramatically, and the concept that what you do in the first few seconds of an active killer event all play a huge role in your likelihood to survive; you’re not automatically a victim.
In the preparation training we design, we employ various tactics such as case studies, live demonstrations, and stories all designed to help the audience learn from others. We generally try to avoid any form of mock physical combat, fake weapons, or other scare tactics designed to make the scenario as realistic as possible. It’s important to remember that most people outside of law enforcement or military organizations have never had training on anything like this, so the key is to work into it at a pace that gives the audience time to mentally process the possibility that these things may someday happen to them.
All participants in active killer preparations, both adults and children, need to be carefully assessed for suitability to the training to be conducted, including emotional maturity, personal history, physical condition and other special needs. Children can be especially susceptible to traumatic impacts from active shooter and lockdown drills, even when they are told it is just a drill. Many kids see the news reports about school shootings and react very emotionally to simulated lockdowns, exhibiting identical emotional and physiological responses as those who have been in real lockdown incidents.
Advanced planning, community communication and coordination with local emergency agencies are essential. Individuals who choose to opt-out of more intensive drills should be provided with comparable instruction on what to do without going through simulated activities. Whenever possible, involve the assistance of psychologists or other mental health professionals in the planning and assessment, and to assist in identifying training participants who show signs of trauma during the drills. Following the completion of training, mental health support should be provided to anyone who needs aftercare.
One further concept is crucial to the success of active killer preparation. Organizations need to recapture the true meaning of “training,” especially in an environment full of online courses and meeting the compliance requirements. A lot of what most people receive as training is just “education”; the transferring of information. While educating is, of course, important, it is just one component of true training.
Training should ensure comprehension and competency in a set of skills; in this case, how to survive an active killer event. This inherently means that there needs to be some way to demonstrate that trainees can perform vital hands-on skills. Getting your audience to physically practice how to barricade a door, walk their site to identify areas of concealment vs cover, and identify items inside a room that could be used as potential defensive weapons are all great ways to transition from educating to training without putting them directly in a fight or flight scenario. Appropriate hands-on exercises are even more critical when you remember that the main individuals to train are adult learners who usually already have a pre-established set of beliefs, habits and routines.
Local governments and their associated safety agencies play an important leadership role in coordinating with employers, educational institutions and health care facilities in preparation for potential active killer incidents. Training and drills are proven to save lives. Finding the right balance for each audience will help to maximize preparation and skill competency to react to serious incidents and minimize the possibility the participants will be not be left more traumatized than trained.
Dean Waddell is a Sr. Loss Control Consultant in Keenan’s Loss Control/Risk Management Department. He serves as a principal consultant in the deployment of Keenan’s IMReady (Incident Management Ready) resources to prepare client organizations to respond to violent emergencies and natural disasters.