No one disputes the need for governments to prepare for the violent acts that have become all too common, from school and workplace shootings to acts of terrorism. But sometimes our efforts at preparedness can produce unintended consequences. Sometimes they can be too real.
At a health facility in Colorado, for example, a police officer impersonating a gunman forced an employee at gunpoint into a closet. The employee was traumatized, says she is unable to work and is suing her employer. The officer was under the impression that management had informed the facility's employees of the "active-shooter" drill.
Such drills have become a standard approach to preparedness in response to tragedies such as the killings of schoolchildren and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. "Gunmen" enter schools and businesses "killing" and "wounding" individuals, watch for reactions and ask questions as to how potential victims would respond to an actual attack. Active-shooter scenario training includes programs such as ALICE, an acronym for "alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate."
According to the ALICE Institute, its training programs have been implemented in schools and other facilities in Iowa, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia. Indiana is among states that provide training for unarmed school-bus drivers, and Kansas has implemented a "Run, Hide, Fight" response plan among its teachers. Missouri has introduced full-scale drills in its schools.
What is to be gained by this? Do fire drills end with pictures of a burned person? Did nuclear-attack drills end with graphic depictions of the effects of fallout? A fire alarm signals danger, and individuals are trained to evacuate. A tornado siren signals danger, and individuals are trained to seek shelter. There is a distinct difference between awareness and experience.
Children do not need to visualize their classmates being killed and employees do not need to be placed in traumatizing situations to learn how they should react. Those being protected do not need to experience the very things they are being protected from. Emergency dispatchers, first-responders and military personnel already experience critical-incident stress, leading in some cases to post-traumatic stress disorder. What is the toll on those who have no training or experience with violent events?
In designing their training and preparedness methods, it's important for governments to work in conjunction with mental-health professionals to understand the implications of their training plans and ensure that the innocent are not negatively impacted. Mental-health professionals can help ensure that what is sound in theory is also sound in application.
As we have embraced realism in our efforts at preparedness, we have lost sight of the purpose of all of this preparation and training. Preparedness exists not only to prevent a loss of life but also to shield the innocent. Intentionally triggering devastating and crippling fear in the name of preparedness provides a victory to this wishing to cause us harm. Certainly training programs must encompass a host of threatening situations, but traumatizing the very people such training is intended to protect defeats its purpose.