The Evolution in Risk and Response:

Next Generation Active Shooter Preparedness

By Steven Crimando

Active Shooter Events (ASEs) are highly dynamic, rapidly evolving situations. In 63 incidents closely analyzed by the FBI in which the duration of the event could be determined, 44 were over in five minutes or less and of those 23 ended in two minutes or less. They happened so quickly that the shooting was over before police arrived. Unlike other violent crimes, the “active” aspect of an ASE inherently implies that both law enforcement personnel and citizens have the potential to affect the outcome of the event based upon their responses. (FBI, 2014)

To effectively prepare for such a fast-moving and potentially devastating threat like an ASE, leaders and decision-makers should be aware of the evolving risk and new approaches in mitigation.

The Evolving Risk

The frequency and characteristics of ASEs have continued to change in scope and complexity since the Texas Bell Tower shooting in 1966, often cited as the first active shooter incident. The rate of ASEs has tripled over the past several years as well. Leaders and planners therefore are confronted with the reality that there are more events, involving great numbers of casualties, demanding a higher level of readiness. It is important that planning efforts are aligned with today’s ASE risks, not yesterday’s. While most ASEs involve lone actors, statistically more often using handguns than long guns, several recent events force planners to also consider the possibility of Hybrid Targeted Violence (HTV). HTV is defined as the use of violence, targeting a specific population, using multiple and multifaceted conventional and unconventional weapons and tactics. The HTV attackers often target several locations simultaneously (Frazzano & Snyder, 2014). While HTV attacks are not exactly new, or unheard of in the U.S., intelligence estimates show that international extremist groups are very interested in initiating, supporting and inciting this kind of attack on American soil. There have been several examples of HTV over the past several years, including multi-pronged attacks in Mumbai, the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Paris, Boston and San Bernardino. Although not as recent, the Beslan School siege is another example of HTV. HTV attacks differ from the more common Active Shooter incidents and include several complicating factors, such as:

  • Well-trained, tactically competent, and willing-to-die perpetrators;
  • Multiple operators (attackers) working in small tactical units;
  • Effective internal and external communications/coordination;
  • Purposeful luring of first responders to inflict even more carnage;
  • Use of fire to complicate first-responder operations and cause further damage;
  • Potential use of chemical, biological or radiological agents; and
  • Use of high-powered military type weapons and explosives, including suicide bomb vests.

HTV involves tactics typically associated with terrorism. There is another place that terrorism intersects with more traditional workplace or campus violence, and that is in the area of Type V violence. It is important that leaders and planners understand the concept of Type V violence and integrate it into overall violence prevention and response strategies.

As a brief introduction or refresher of OSHA’s five primary types of workplace violence:

Type I violence occurs during the commission of a property crime such as a robbery, theft or trespassing. In this scenario, there is no legitimate business relationship between the offender and the organization. The organization or victim is selected because of the perception that there is something of value to be taken, such as cash, medications or electronics. Type I violence is most common in convenience stores, liquor stores, and gas stations, as well as taxis and limousines, where people may work late at night, all alone, and have cash on hand. This type of workplace violence is the most prevalent, and 85% of workplace homicides occur in this type of circumstance.

Type II violence is the most prevalent in hospital and health care environments and in fact, health care and social service workers are four times more likely to be the victims of violence on the job than any other type of worker in the U.S. (OSHA, 2014). In instances of Type II violence the offender is known to the organization as a client, customer or patient, and the violence occurs during the routine delivery of services. In some settings the risk of assault or injury by customers or clients represents a real and ongoing threat in everyday work.

The type of violence most commonly thought of as “workplace violence” is Type III; coworker- to-co-worker violence. There are many instances in which this also involves worker-to-supervisor, and in some cases supervisor-to-worker violence. In academic settings this may manifest itself as student-to-student or student-to-faculty violence. In Type III workplace violence the perpetrator is a current or former employee (or student) of the organization. The motivating factor is often one or a series of interpersonal or work/ school-related conflicts, losses or traumas, and may involve a sense of injustice or unfairness. Type III violence accounts for about 7% of all workplace homicides, and those in positions of authority are often at the greatest risk of being victimized. It is important to note that even workers or students who have separated from the organization may still represent a risk of violence in some situations.

When violence and abuse follow a worker from home to work, it is considered Type IV or “Intimate Partner Violence.” It is important for employers to recognize that violence and abuse at home are not just personal problems; they can and do intrude into the workplace, sometimes violently with tragic consequences. There are many cases each year, often involving multiple victims, when a former spouse or partner brings their violence or aggression to their partner’s workplace. The perpetrator may know their partner’s work hours, parking location or other information that may make them vulnerable. The risk of violence increases significantly when one party attempts to separate from the other.

Type IV violence is typically a spillover of domestic violence into the workplace and refers to perpetrators who are not employees or former employees of the affected workplace. Women are more often the targets. Hospital and health care environments may be particularly vulnerable to Type IV violence since the workforce is likely to be predominantly female.

Lastly, in instances of Type V Violence, the violent actor is an extremist of some sort who believes that violence is necessary, justified or deserved in their radical views. In such cases violence is directed at an organization, its people and/or property for ideological, religious or political reasons. Violence perpetrated by extremist environmental, animal rights, and other value-driven groups may fall within this category. In Type V violence, target selection is not based on a sense of personal or professional injustice in the workplace, but rather rage against what the targeted organization does or represents. The shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November, 2015, is an example of extreme ideology driving an Active Shooter Event. Hate crimes and terrorism are examples of Type V violence especially when they are directed against an organization and its employees.

All five types of workplace violence have the potential to evolve into Active Shooter Events. Type V violence blurs the lines between workplace violence and terrorism. Consider these three mass shooting incidents:

  • The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015
  • The attack on the Armed Forces recruitment center and Naval Reserve Center in Chattanooga in July 2015, and
  • The San Bernardino attack in December 2015.

In each instance, the victims were shot while on-the-job and at a work-related function. In the San Bernardino case, one of the attackers was also a co-worker. Each case was motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda, and the perpetrators were true believers willing to die for their cause. The media and politicians often argue if such events are workplace violence or terrorism; Type V violence is the place where terrorism and workplace violence intersect.

Some work environments, especially campus settings, which are open and active, may be attractive targets employing the tactics of terrorism during violent attacks.

Communicating the Risk

Rapid, structured communications save lives. The single best way to protect the workforce or student population during an active shooter incident is to deny the shooter potential targets. Rapid, pre-constructed messages delivered to multiple points upon immediate awareness of the threat can redirect staff, students, and others away from harm and toward safety.

ASEs evolve quickly and time is of the essence. Valuable moments are lost if people are milling around in confusion and panic, leaving them vulnerable and exposed. In training, it is critical to convey the concept that in high-threat situations, it is not enough to run from danger; it is equally or more important to run towards safety. Authorities (i.e., DHS, FBI, others) suggest plain language, not code words, for active shooter incident notification. Research shows people do not panic when given clear and informative warnings; they want accurate information and clear instructions on how to protect themselves in the emergency. Not everyone will understand a code system, and so plain language warnings and clear instructions should be given to make sure everyone in danger understands the need to act.

By pre-developing messages and testing emergency notifications capabilities, leaders and planners can help more quickly and effectively move people away from danger and toward safety. Everything associated with ASE response comes down to speed. Rapid communication can help deprive the shooter of their initial tactical advantage and better enable bystanders to intervene in an effective manner.

The great American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.” In planning for ASEs, focus on the response gap, realize that everyone in the immediate environment is a potential first responder, and training them as such, and provide the necessary knowledge awareness and skills to succeed. Remember that bystander intervention, beginning with early recognition of the warning signs, as well as specific skills to both stop the killing and stop the dying, will be critical to the success of an active shooter response plan.

About the Author:

Steven M. Crimando is a subject matter expert and trainer specialized in human factors/behavioral sciences in homeland and corporate security, violence prevention and intervention, emergency and disaster management. Steve is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress (BCETS) and Certified Trauma Specialist (CTS). He holds Diplomat status with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and the National Center for Crisis Management. Steve is the principal of Behavioral Science Applications and serves as a consultant and trainer for the federal, state and local law enforcement and emergency management agencies, as well as multinational corporations and NGO’s worldwide.