Active Threats and the Formula for Preparedness

Communities need a 'life cycle' approach to preventing and recovering from violent incidents in public places.
May 2, 2017
By Kyle McPhee  |  Contributor
Director of preparedness programs for Hagerty Consulting

It's troubling enough when active-threat events unfold in places where you least expect them. It's especially horrific when children are involved. The tragic shooting incident that took place recently at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., serves as a somber reminder that no community can be too prepared.

In a 2014 report, the FBI reviewed more than 160 active-shooter events that occurred from 2000 to 2013, incidents that resulted in the killing or wounding of more than 1,000 people. What's striking is that the location of these incidents varied greatly: 45 percent in places of commerce, 25 percent in schools, 10 percent in government facilities and 20 percent in other places such as hospitals, parks and houses of worship. In short, no public place is safe from active threats. But while it's impossible to eliminate every threat, knowing how to prepare and respond can reduce the likelihood of these events and the severity of those that do occur.

Like all of these events, what happened at North Park Elementary - where a gunman killed his wife who taught at the school, a student and himself -- is hard to fathom and something that will take time to recover from. But the community, where 14 people were slain in a December 2015 terrorist attack, had many of the right preparedness solutions in place: restricted means of access at the school, training for lockdown situations and fast response time from police and other emergency-services personnel.

Managing active-threat events is not just about response. Preparedness, mitigation and recovery are equally important. I encourage using a "life cycle" approach -- everything from how people behave to how people meet up after an incident to how survivors are counseled.

In my work with local and state jurisdictions, I'm often asked what should be done first. While preparedness can take multiple forms -- program and site assessments, emergency plans, training, exercises - a good process starts by simply asking the right questions. Is there an intruder-response plan or policy? Do you know what it is? If there isn't such a plan in place, why not?

Understanding the gaps in an organization's preparedness plan is key to determining what actions should be taken, by whom, and when. Once these needs are identified, they should be documented and shared across all levels of an organization. Creating a culture of preparedness requires buy-in from the bottom up, and a collaborative planning process goes a long way in aligning views of multiple stakeholders.

To look at these events from a holistic life cycle angle requires the entire community to be involved. Fire, police, and EMS responders are critical, but what we saw in San Bernardino, and in many similar incidents, is that those who are on site when the event begins become the true first responders. Those initial seconds may mean the difference between life and death.

Given these considerations, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Be aware. Active threats can happen anywhere, and it is up to each of us to take steps to better prepare ourselves, our families and our communities. This could mean working with your employer, your children's school or your church to develop an emergency plan. It's also important to remember that an effective plan isn't just about response. What can you do today to be prepared?

Look for training opportunities, and don't let emergency plans become stagnant. Run exercises that put your plans into practice and assess your security policies through regular training. When active threats occur, seconds matter, so proper planning and training can empower individuals to act.

Include the whole community in preparedness activities. One successful model is a "community cohort" that includes diverse stakeholders including schools, houses of worship, businesses, nonprofit organizations, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services. The cohort approach acknowledges that all community stakeholders have a role in an effective response to active-threat events and therefore should develop preparedness actions together.

The sad reality is that an event like the one that struck North Park Elementary can happen anywhere. Using a life cycle approach and encouraging the whole community to be involved are not only key to creating a culture of preparedness but also vital to ensuring a smooth recovery process in the aftermath of an active-threat event.