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Prepared for the Worst

As unsettling as it may be to fathom, the threat of active shooters is a reality of the workplace. Tools and resources are available, however, to help employers be better equipped for the unthinkable.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
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It's a terrifying scenario that no one wants to even imagine.

Yet it's one that's played out entirely too often.

The most recent gruesome example comes from a small Kansas town.

Late last Thursday afternoon, Excel Industries employee Cedric Ford left work not long after a sheriff's deputy had arrived on the lawn-care equipment manufacturer's premises to serve him a protection from abuse order.

Less than 90 minutes later, Ford returned. Now armed with an assault rifle and automatic pistol, he approached the plant opening fire on co-workers and anyone else unlucky enough to be in the vicinity of the Excel building, located in Hesston, a city with a population of roughly 3,700 and the home to tiny, 450-student Hesston College, a two-year school founded by the Mennonite Church. Ford ultimately killed three and wounded 16 others before being fatally shot by a police officer on the scene.

Relatively speaking, the likelihood of your employees finding themselves in the crosshairs of someone like Cedric Ford is still very small. But it's very real.

Consider that the Gun Violence Archive -- which collects and validates gun violence and crime incident data from 1,500 sources on a daily basis -- reports that 330 incidents in which four or more people were shot or killed took place in the United States last year. And the workplace is where such horrific events most commonly unfold, with 45 percent of active shooter incidents taking place in commercial settings, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

While many companies may find the topic "very uncomfortable to talk about," it's important to have procedures in place to prepare for the unthinkable, says Nickole Winnett, a Washington-based principal at Jackson Lewis, and a member of the firm's employment litigation and workplace safety and health practice groups.

HR leaders should be facilitating these conversations, says Winnett, urging HR professionals to educate employees on the "Run. Hide. Fight" training model, based on the six-minute, Department of Homeland Security-funded video the City of Houston produced in the aftermath of the July 2012 mass shooting that killed 12 and injured 70 others in a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

"Walk them through what that model would mean in your office," says Winnett. "Where would employees run to, where could they hide if that would be safer, and what could they use in the office to fight [an attacker] if it came to that last resort?"

Such discussions aren't necessarily easy to initiate, naturally. No employee -- HR professionals included -- relishes the thought of having to react in the midst of gunfire in the workplace.  

For that matter, some may not be quite convinced -- or ready to accept -- that active shooter training is really necessary, says Winnett.

"Employers encounter that cynicism," says Winnett. "Even when I've been invited to give talks or presentations about active-shooter preparation, I see some employees are skeptical. They think, 'Will this really happen here? Do I really need to focus on this training?' "

In some cases, HR professionals might have reservations of their own, says Jay Hart, director of the Force Training Institute.

"In our experience, HR has usually played one of two roles in the organization when they do this training," says Hart, whose Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based group has provided crisis management training, consulting, assessment and certification programs to hundreds of private and public organizations, including companies such as the Boeing Co., Ford Motor Co., The Gap Inc. and Rite Aid Corp.

"They're the champion -- they want to bring this to the organization and they realize they need to bring this training to their employees. Or, they're the challenger -- questioning whether this kind of preparation is really needed."

Simple honesty is the best way to allay such concerns, says Winnett.

"You can tell employees that [active shooter occurrences are] actually very rare, and it's probably never going to happen in your office or in your building. But you can also tell them that, if they're trained, they're more likely to know how to react, and have a better chance of survival."

Hart echoes Winnett's sentiment, saying that crisis management training should not be "fear-based."

"The words we use are important," says Hart. "We stay away from calling it 'active shooter training.' When we come in to talk with an organization about doing the training, we focus on making it about workplace safety" in a broader sense.

In addition to the training that organizations such as Hart's provide, technology can aid employers' efforts to react swiftly and efficiently in the face of horrific violence.

Share911.com, for example, bills itself as the world's first workplace emergency management platform that enables communication, collaboration and continuity of operations before, during and after an emergency. The private and secure web-based application allows employees to share critical information with each other in real time during an emergency, which "increases response time and provides critical situational awareness to employees, management and emergency response personnel," according to Share911.com.

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Black Swan Solutions, a Waukesha, Wis.-based provider of crisis management technology and services, offers a mobile app that's designed to improve companies' evacuation and shelter-in-place planning in crisis situations. According to the company, the app allows employees designated as "safety wardens," or those in comparable roles, to access -- via smart phone -- their pre-assigned group to report who is missing, provide details on those who are unaccounted for at the moment and generate reports designed to assist first responders in focusing their search-and-rescue efforts.

"It's a huge undertaking that HR has to take on" in the event that an active shooter descends on the workplace, says Michelle Colosimo, director of Black Swan Solutions.

"Accounting for everyone is a big challenge," she says. "So, [HR] has to coordinate all of these things beforehand -- What do you need to prepare for? And, what will you need to do when and if this does happen?"

Readiness requires a multidisciplinary effort, she says, including risk managers and security personnel.

"What falls to HR is everything that relates to people, which means employees and their families, in terms of ensuring family members know their loved ones' whereabouts. So HR needs to make sure that people are trained on what to do if this happens," says Colosimo, who urges employers and HR to not only conduct training for employees, but to periodically simulate active shooter situations.

"You have to do drills," she says. "Create that muscle memory in your workers. It's one thing to be trained, but having your people go through the actual motions is so important in helping them to be better prepared for these situations."

Being equipped for the unthinkable is more important than ever before, says Winnett.

"Unfortunately, we're becoming a more violent society, at least statistically speaking," she says, citing a 2014 Federal Bureau of Investigation report that found the average number of active shooter incidents increased more than twofold between the years 2000 and 2013.  

Winnett also notes that she's seen a "really noticeable uptick" in the number of client companies making requests for crisis-situation preparedness training.

"Employers are saying 'we need to have a policy to address this.' That's good, but it's sad in another way. It's obviously sad that this is something employers have to do."

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