Why Active-Threat Preparedness Should Be a National Priority

A tragic school fire decades ago brought about real change that has saved lives. Today's school shootings call for the same kind of comprehensive response.
February 28, 2018
Students evacuating Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a mass shooting on Valentine's Day. (TNS/Sun Sentinel/Mike Stocker)
By Kyle McPhee  |  Contributor
Director of preparedness programs for Hagerty Consulting

In 1958, a fire at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago, Our Lady of the Angels, took 95 lives, including those of 92 children. The impact of this single tragic event cannot be overstated, as it set the precedent for sweeping changes to fire-safety regulations around the country and, as a result, has saved countless lives. States now require regular fire drills and code compliance, local fire departments enforce regulations, and national organizations publish resources and standards to guide activity under a unified and informed approach.

The killings of 14 students and three staff members at a Parkland, Fla., high school on Feb. 14 -- the most recent in a string of mass shootings -- holds the potential to set a similar precedent. Much of the debate following the Florida shootings has focused on regulation of firearms and on whether teachers and other school staff members should be armed. But the larger lesson we should draw is this: The time has come to make a national investment in a comprehensive system of active threat preparedness.

When it comes to schools, for example, teachers need to be empowered through protective-action training so they are ready to spring into action at a moment's notice and engage appropriate techniques, such as arranging classrooms to barricade doors from intruders. Every school needs to have an alert system that is drilled monthly and can be accessed by multiple staff members. Parents need to understand the protocols and other measures being taken to keep their children safe. First response must be crowdsourced and driven by the community, teachers, neighbors and families. Most importantly, we must make investments in identifying individuals' at-risk behaviors in every school and with local law enforcement.

I continue to see hope amidst tragedy when I hear stories of individuals faced with the unthinkable who make great sacrifices, including putting their own lives at risk, to protect students, friends and community members. But the greater hope lies not just in stirring examples of individual sacrifice. It lies in the power of the everyday person being prepared in advance to act -- to know exactly what they will do in such a situation. This requires empowerment through leadership and guidance. The incremental steps that take us from reactive to ready begin with these four priorities:

Formal information-sharing networks: "If you see something, say something" is a national campaign that is intended to engage the public in recognizing and reporting potential risks. This program needs to be implemented at the most local level possible.

Threat assessment programs: A multi-disciplinary team composed of organizational leadership, behavioral health professionals and security staff should be charged with mitigation of threatening situations and early identification of individuals at risk.

Regularly tested notification systems: Under the Clery Act, higher-education organizations that accept federal funds are required to devise an emergency response, notification and testing policy. Schools at all levels should have such a mass notification system, and it cannot have a single point of failure. If a principal or other administrative official is unavailable, can multiple users send out information to those who are at risk, and are emergency messages ready to send?

Training on "non-linear" response models: These provide those facing active-threat situations with different response options based on their location to the threat. Every classroom -- and every public gathering space -- should have them in place, and they must be regularly drilled by all members of the organization.

The school fire in Chicago 60 years ago was a tragedy that highlighted a need for change, and the resulting actions of governments from coast-to-coast greatly reduced the threat over time. The threat has changed, and it's time to respond again, this time with a national program of active-threat preparedness.