Shooting down active shooters

Is your workplace a hard enough target to repel active shooters?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Disturbed people bent on mass shooting mayhem typically case their targets for a prolonged period of time, sometimes up to a year, before pulling off their heinous acts. What are they trying to determine? Simply put, they want to figure our whether the facility they are studying is a hard or soft target.

If it’s the latter, businesses may be placing their workplace at greater risk. Since virtually every active shooter event is pre-planned by the shooter, with surveillance of the target, weapons preparation, and internet research of other active shooters and police responses, such events rarely are spontaneous. Therefore potential targets have to plan, as well, no matter how remote the possibility of being victimized.

“I’ve heard the odds of being involved in an active shooter incident are roughly the same as being hit by lightning,” notes Sgt. Shawn Engel of the Madison Police Department. “We don’t want people to be hysterical about the topic because it’s unlikely they will ever be in one, but just like we know not to stand under a tree during a thunderstorm, we want them to be thinking about the best options for dealing with an active shooter.”

When active shooters do strike, more often it’s in a commercial setting, as 45.6% of active shooter events take place in businesses, 24.4% in schools, and 10% in government facilities, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. Among the areas of commerce, these incidents included businesses open to pedestrian traffic (27.5%), businesses closed to pedestrian traffic (14.3%), and shopping malls (3.8%).

Anecdotally, Deputy Josalyn Longley of the Dane County Sheriff’s Department says that in the past two years, the percentage of businesses that now want to train their employees for active shooter situations has increased, and that has made open spaces a more frequent target. Longley, who conducts presentations on active shooters, has trained more than 9,000 people in Dane County. “What we’re finding in some of the FBI research is that they are seeing a shift to more public locations [such as the Las Vegas shooting] because schools and some businesses are hardening to become hard targets,” she notes.

With the input of Engel and Longley, we look at limiting access in an accompanying story, but what follows is response advice for when a shooter penetrates security measures.

Train gain

Since even hard targets can be penetrated if a shooter is determined enough, there are still ways to limit the carnage if an active shooter gets inside a place of business. Based on what has been learned from such incidents in a variety of settings, authorities have devised a number of response methods. They go by names like ALICE training, ALERRT, and so forth, and employers are encouraged to evaluate which approach, or combination of approaches, make sense for their business and facility.

ALICE training, developed by the institute of the same name, stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. Developed specifically for schools but with applications for any type of structure, it is instructor-led training to prepare for and proactively handle an active shooter event, and it offers an alternative to the more traditional lockdown-only approach.

Engel, who conducts active shooter training for businesses and other types of organizations, says the Madison Police Department has adopted the ALERRT organization model, which stands for advanced law enforcement rapid response training, and its ADD (avoid, deny, defend) response.

ALERRT is an organization formed in Texas in 2002 as a result of the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999. Three entities — the San Marcos Police Department, the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, and Texas State University  — came together to educate first responders and civilians about active shooter response. The training includes a power point lecture that starts with a history of active shooter events, how quickly they happen (most are over within five minutes), and a first-hand view from people who have been involved in these events because they laid the groundwork for civilian response to active shooter event (CRASE) training.

“We talk about when would you want to avoid versus deny, barricade versus defend, and we talk about each response option to provide context of when you would want to do one over the other and talk through different scenarios,” explains Engel, who serves as the CRASE coordinator for Madison police. “We also talk about stress response. Your body tends to shut down under high levels of stress, and we talk about that and how we can control that stress response.”


The avoid part is best explained by two words: get out. Avoid simply means trying to avoid the active-shooter environment and the shooter because they tend to remain in the facility looking for targets. In the pre-planning phase, this requires knowing multiple exits and choosing the right one, especially if you know the shooter’s whereabouts. “If you can get out of that environment, you’re going to get out. It’s the first response action, the one we want people to do first, if you can,” Engel says. “In our plan, avoid is really the best option. If you can get out, get out.”


Failing that, it’s okay to be in denial. If you can’t immediately evacuate the venue because you’re on the fifth floor or the shooter is in a hallway or stairwell, the next best option is to deny that shooter easy access to where you are. This is where locking doors and barricading them with office furniture comes in. “We want to put plenty of things in front of that locked door,” Engel advises. “We’re trying to slow that shooter down so they can’t get to us and also to buy some time. Given the average response time for law enforcement involved in mass shooter incidents, we should do something to buy ourselves at least three minutes.”

Some response methods call for hiding in an interior shelter, but Madison police discourage people from just hiding because while it might make us feel safer, what options do you have if you’re found. “It’s like hide and seek,” Engel notes. “If you play hide and seek, it’s great until you’re found. What’s you next option? You never want to give options away. You want to be trying to minimize the options the suspect has and increase the options you have.”




In the event a shooter blasts through a barricade, or you otherwise happen to encounter him, the art of self-defense is your last hope. This could involve disabling the weapon, the shooter, or both, and for obvious reasons, it’s the part of civilian response that people tend to have the hardest time with. Most people haven’t thought through having to fight for their lives or having to kill the suspect, but causing dysfunction in the weapon or the shooter is what you’re left with and it requires a warrior mentality.

“What we train is that if that shooter comes through, you need to be taking the fight to them,” Engel explains. “They are in an offensive mindset and they are there to kill you and they have an offensive plan, so instead of being on the defensive, you need a way to disrupt that with an offensive mindset and switch the roles around.”

This is where the training includes knowledge of different kinds of weapons, including semi-automatics, and talking through how to cause dysfunction in them — in some cases, simply grabbing them or otherwise controlling the muzzle — while also disabling the shooter. The best way to frustrate the shooter is to negatively impact his vision and/or breathing.

“What we tell people to do is to focus on the eyes and the breathing,” Engel states. “If we can take away vision and breathing, then we’re going to be much, much safer because if they can’t breathe and they can’t see us, they are going to have a hard time attacking us.”

With the use of a strike bag, Madison police show people how to use what’s called a hammer fist on their vision or their windpipe. With the hammer fist, a person basically uses the underside of a clenched fist (the palm of their hand) instead of their knuckles to deliver a blow to the eyes, neck, or jaw in order to distract and disable the shooter. This avoids injury to your hand, which you’ll need to complete your escape, and “nails” the attacker much like a hammer drives a nail into a piece of wood.

“We use it as it is a simple technique that non-fighters can use without much practice,” Engel says, “and it works well close in.”

Police also talk about combining the hammer fist with improvised weapons such a common office product like a Sharpie marker, to act as a force multiplier. “It’s a hard surface and somewhat pointed, so if I take that and I start striking you in the eyes with something like that, that’s going to cause more damage than a hammer fist,” Engel states. “It’s about thinking out of the box, being aware of your situation, and acting proactively. If I have to fight somebody, what do I have in my environment to help me survive this?”

As for the commonly held belief that a shot to the groin will be sufficient, remember that shooters are highly motivated to carry out their act and as such, they can fight through a lot of pain. The reverse is true if you happen to be wounded with a bullet — just because you’ve been shot doesn’t mean you’re dead. “We’re not going to stop fighting for our lives until we can’t fight anymore,” Engel states. “You have to get that mentality across in order to survive these attacks.”

Skeptics snickered recently at a school administrator who told the press his school has stones and rocks strategically placed so that students can use them to distract the shooter, but Longley defended the idea, citing success with projectiles that are much softer than stones and rocks. Longley, a certified instructor in both ALERRT and ALICE active shooter training, was part of a drill in which Nerf balls were used to throw a shooter off balance. “People just threw Nerf balls at the gunman, and he was distracted,” she states. “He put the gun out to cover his face, and while he did that, two people came from the side and tackled him.”

Part of this “warrior mentality” is a coolness that comes with controlling stress. “When your heart rate goes up, your ability to think rationally and respond goes down, and so we want to get that teeter-totter balanced out,” Engel says. “We talk about a strategy to control your breathing. If we can control our breathing, our heart rate has to go down. When our heart rate comes down, we have better faculties and we can process what goes down around us.”

Stick to the mental script

Longley, who serves as emergency preparedness coordinator for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, says the mindset a business must have as it pre-plans is that its building could be the next target. Longley calls it “mental scripting” because what law enforcement hopes to do with its civilian training is not to critique an organization’s emergency action plan, but to make security suggestions and give businesses things to consider.

One way to help guide employees in an emergency is to provide a reminder card that can be placed on their desks for easy access, such as this card used by WPS Health Solutions.

“It could happen anywhere,” Longley notes, “and you have to do mental scripting about if it were to happen here, where are the exits? How can we get out? If we can’t get out, where can we barricade to buy time to get law enforcement there? And we also emphasize, with the metal scripting, if they are in a room and they are prevented from leaving, can we throw something? Can we do something to distract that shooter? What can we do aside from being a passive target?”

Once an active shooter event begins, there is not much time to act. In its training through the ALICE Institute, the Sheriff’s Department tells trainees the national average of law enforcement response time is five to six minutes from the time of a call. “I’ve studied these events, and over 70% of these incidents are done in five minutes or less,” Longley states. “If you do the numbers, by the time we are on the scene, often times it’s over.”

As part of an EAP, one best practice is to have a way to alert people in your building that something is happening. That can help save lives because if they don’t know there is a threat in the building or if they don’t know the location of the threat, it’s hard for them to make a decision as to evacuating or barricading.

She cited an app called, which basically works like a PA system through mobile phones, or it can alert people on their computers. “They’ve got to do their own research, but they need to look into ways they can alert people in their building and keep them informed,” Longley states. “If someone can safely say there is someone with a gun on the fifth floor of this building, we’re empowering people to do something, to react, versus just sit in their cubicles or sit at their desks.”

The Sheriff’s Department training stresses the importance of knowing more than one exit because we’re creatures of habit. Employees tend to come in and out of the same door every day, and if an active shooter situation occurs, they are more likely to revert back to what they know. “You saw that at Columbine, where people ran by exits to go to the main door and you saw that at the theater shooting in Colorado,” Longley notes. “People went down the hall where there are exits and went to the door where they came in, so we ask them to be aware of their surroundings.

“If they have to break a window to get out of a room to get away, we’re telling them to get away, to get out.”

The situation

Shawn Smith, president and CEO of MPI Protective Services, says office workers and retailers both benefit from a heightened sense of awareness. In the office, it might be as simple as the placement of improvised weapons such as pens or the placement of heavy furniture that can be moved to block a door at a moment’s notice. For retailers, it involves acknowledging store visitors — those with bad intentions do not like to be noticed by cameras or the human eye — and for both, Smith advises avoiding any signage that indicates you’re a “gun-free zone.” It might be well intentioned, but it also identifies your facility as a potentially easy mark.

“If you’ve got a lot of activity going in and out of your store, you’re paying attention, and acknowledging people when they come in, just simple and small things like that will harden the target,” Smith says. “I keep thinking of a school I went to 15 or 20 years ago, and they actually showed a bunch of guys who were doing time. These were big-time criminals and they showed them just people walking down the street, and they assumed little old ladies were the ones they would attack, and the fellas in jail said no because she’s more likely to pay attention to her surroundings. It’s the guy talking on the cell phone or the person not paying attention to where they’re at that offer the best target.”

The bottom line of active shooter training is that there is something you can do in such events. “We talk a lot about having a warrior mindset, and a lot of people who survive these events stressed the importance of telling yourself you’re going to survive,” Longley notes. “That’s why that mental scripting is so important. If you can script various scenarios in your mind, you’re more likely to react the right way in the event it happens.”



A little access control goes a long way

Broaching the subject of active shooter vulnerability, James Mankowski immediately mentioned the Aug. 5, 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Located in suburban Milwaukee community of Oak Creek, the Temple’s congregants were arriving for Sunday services when tragedy struck. It was about the last place you’d expect to find a gunman bent on murder. By the time he was taken out, he had killed six people and wounded four others, including a police officer who arrived on the scene.

As a law enforcement officer who has had ALICE training, Mankowski says the take-away from this tragedy is that the congregation, as is its nature, was inviting to anyone who would go there or take a tour. “What this shooter did is scope out the place and know the day he carried out the attack, it was very accessible,” Mankowski says. “He could walk right in and do his thing.”

In other words, even in a place of worship, people can no longer be allowed to just come and go. Mankowski, president of JBM Patrol & Protection Corp., would develop a safety plan for the Temple that emphasizes access control and also includes uniformed armed guards.

Access control is not full proof, but having it sounds like a no-brainer. However, many still don’t for the simple reason that people crave the freedom to come and go, especially during the day, and they don’t want to wear identification badges. “But that’s the way we have to do business today,” Mankowski says. “Unless people harden their access points, and make critical check points and limit who comes and goes, you’re at the mercy of whoever opens the door.”

Hardening the target

As you assess whether your facility is a hard or soft target, one question to ask is whether every single door needs to open from the outside?

“Can you funnel access to one door?” asks Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy Josalyn Longley. “Obviously, they can shoot through glass so they have a way to get in, but you still can react when that’s happening, so that’s why it’s important to have one main location where people come in.”

Security companies try to strike a balance between securing your property without making it feel like a prison. To do so, they must determine the level of engagement you want with your security system, and that level of engagement will be different for different types of buildings and different businesses.

Barrett Smallwood, a security design engineer for Fearing Audio/Video Security, says a complete access control system is one where everything is locked around the perimeter at all times, and employees are funneled to a front door that is accessible to them only at the right times. At that access point, a network video door station would be installed that includes a vestibule between the outside and the inside and dual authentication in which traffic must go through the first door, pass through a metal detector, and go through a second door with a credential.

Metal detectors, he notes, now are on a digital scale where they can trigger alerts and stop the second point of entry if somebody were to have a positive read, but generally there is a security person in front.

This higher level of security has come down in price and typically is available for under $5,000, even though they now feature mobile components and high-resolution cameras with multiple lenses that offer 360-degree views and more detail than ever before.

More basic access control would entail a front door that somebody would either need a key FOB to gain entry or simply get buzzed in via the video door station.

As for your cost calculation, count on a range of $1,000 to $1,500 per door.

Perhaps the best technological advance of recent years, according to David Poley, security project manager for Fearing, is onboard analytics on security cameras. This feature comes with a function that allows the video to smartly search through and immediately scan the time period selected, eliminating hundreds of man-hours of work.

Facilities also can provide notifications with accompanying analytics software. Poley says it’s similar to motion detection, only you’re using video analytics that enable more precision. “If you do have somebody cross a line, or approach the building at an unusual angle, it will notify you either through an app or a popup,” Poley adds, “rather than trying to find out after the fact where this person came from.”

There is also a wireless “panic” button that can be installed at the reception desk or carried on a belt or lanyard. When pressed, it sends a silent alarm to a monitoring company that immediately summons local law enforcement.



See more online: Resourceful training

Active shooter training and tips exist in a variety of sources. Here are some we came across that can help businesses develop an Emergency Action Plan that could be the difference between life and death.

Free active shooter training


  • ALERRT (Advanced law enforcement rapid response training)
  • ALICE Training Institute (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate).


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