Editor's Pick: Originally Published Wednesday, Dec. 23
When the first shots rang out in Paris in November, many diners didn’t believe what they were hearing. The rapid pop-pop-pop of automatic gunfire sounded so out of place on a November evening in the City of Lights that civilians simply wrote it off as an unusual fireworks display or ambient noise. It was only later, when the situation became clear, that they ran, evacuating the area or seeking shelter in boutiques and cafes until the danger had passed.
For security experts it was a perfect example of the first two prongs of what has become a mantra every bit as depressing as the 1950s era duck and cover: “run, hide, fight.” Increasingly common pamphlets set on the desks for new employees around the country cover response scenarios for a workplace shooter, advising them first to find an escape route and, failing that, to take shelter in a dark office and hide under the desk.
What relatively few companies have covered is the third option. Fearful of encouraging their employees to take deadly risks and make a bad situation worse, most companies have avoided giving any advice on how to confront a violent gunman. Until now.
As the Washington Post recently reported, companies across the country have begun to embrace the idea of confronting gunmen in the office. In classes conducted by groups such as the ALICE Training Institute, workers and students are taught how to counterattack and defend themselves, with an emphasis on tactics such as building barricades, throwing nearby objects at the gunman and coordinating an attack together (“rushing the shooter”).
Throwing staplers at a man armed with heavy weapons may not seem like much, but security experts are increasingly saying that it’s not about leveling the playing field. It’s about creating opportunities in a bad situation. The threat of workplace violence has reached such an epidemic rate that companies have begun to treat this as a genuine hazard instead of the kind of horrifying outlier that leads the nightly news.
Statistically they’re not wrong. With America averaging well over one mass shooting per day, it’s become the kind of workplace risk that actually demands planning. Experts say those plans should account for the fact that sometimes escape is impossible.
“Fight as an option is listed last, and these options are listed in precedence of advisability,” said Brian McNary, vice president with Pinkerton’s Global Risk Group. “The fact remains that most people are not trained to effectively engage and neutralize a firearm threat within its effective range.”
But, he added, “scenario variables can be complex or relatively simple, and largely establish those conditions which bear on the prospective success -- and degree of success -- for each option. In open areas where exposure to fire is prolonged by lack of cover or line-of-sight breaks, fleeing and hiding may be poor options compared to fighting.”
In other words run and hide should still be the first option, but sometimes “fight” is all that’s left. Office workers should know how to evaluate their circumstances and what to do next, no matter what.
At least that’s the theory behind this kind of self-defense course.
It’s the difference between a passive response and an active, according to Kiersten Todt, president of the risk management firm Liberty Group Ventures. After the Virginia Tech shootings, a lot of the responses discussed were “very reactive,” focusing on how to lock down a building and secure rooms for students to hide.
But, she said, “where you were seeing less harm being done, oftentimes, was when the victims took the offense and tried to take down the shooter.”
Todt cited the famous example of Jacob Ryker, a teenager in Oregon “who knew that if he didn’t take down the shooter, he would kill others.” After being shot, Ryker tackled the gunman and is often credited with saving the lives of many others.
The key, as McNary emphasized, is judgment; training people how to recognize when they have no other options is just as important as teaching them what to do.
“The effectiveness of offerings intended to better prepare people for active shooter scenarios is first predicated on whether attack recognition and resolution to act is taught as essential elements,” he said.
At the same time the issue of judgment is a source of concern, raising the specter of office workers who die trying to be heroes. This Rambo effect could lead to unnecessary casualties among people who could otherwise have escaped, but who instead engage a deadly, heavily armed gunman, not realizing their own limits until it’s too late.
It’s a risk, Todt said, but one that needs to be treated as an issue of risk management.
“Which is the better of two evils? Where do you want to err?” she said. “Do you want to err in the direction of people not having the training to take this situation on?”
“Like anything, I believe that if it is done by skilled, trained people, and the context and the narrative are as much a part of the training as the training itself, then opportunities for that sort of mentality are limited,” Todt said.
And office workers can have a better chance than they might think, she said. Active shooters don’t expect their intended victims to go on the attack. With the advantage of numbers and surprise on their side, they can stand a chance. At least more of a chance than facing a hopeless situation without training.
But still, it remains about judgment. Training office workers to fight back can give them an edge when there’s no other option, as long as it doesn’t make someone take foolish risks.
“Having been on the receiving and delivering ends of armed assault, my personal and professional experience is that the single most important factors are the ability to rapidly and correctly assess the situation,” McNary said. “I.e. recognize it for what it is -- and then decide to act.”