How to Prepare for an Active Shooter Event in the Workplace

Author: Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, XpertHR Legal Editor

Active shooter events are devastating and unpredictable and can evolve very quickly. Unfortunately, the frequency of these incidents have increased in recent years, often occurring in a place of business. As a result, an employer is well-advised to implement certain procedures in order to protect the workplace in the event of an active shooter situation, as well as ensure employees and managers are mentally and physically prepared to respond to such a situation and to manage the aftermath.

An active shooter is defined by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as an individual who is engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. In most cases, active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims. Typically, active shooters will continue to move throughout a building or area until stopped by law enforcement, suicide or other intervention.

While not all the recommendations listed below are applicable to every facility or organization, it is nonetheless prudent for an employer to consider measures it can take to increase individual awareness of, improve chances of preventing and respond effectively to an active shooter event.

Step 1: Implement a "Zero Tolerance" Workplace Violence Policy

Adopting a "zero tolerance" policy demonstrates an employer's commitment to workplace violence prevention. The policy also serves to advise employees of what they should do in the event of an actual or potential workplace violence incident. An employer should include the following key points in the policy:

  • A statement of the company's "zero tolerance" for workplace violence and its commitment to maintaining a safe working environment;
  • A definition of workplace violence and a list of illustrative examples of prohibited behavior, including intimidation, bullying and domestic violence;
  • A description of the types of objects that are considered prohibited weapons;
  • A statement that encourages employees to report any behavior they deem suspicious and/or threatening, including suspicions of domestic violence and threats of suicide;
  • A commitment to preventing retaliation against employees who report in good faith;
  • An anonymous reporting procedure;
  • Designated persons (e.g., supervisor, manager, HR) to whom such behavior can be reported in addition to alternative persons in the event the employee does not feel comfortable with one of those designated;
  • An assurance that it will promptly investigate all reports of suspicious or threatening behavior and/or threats of violence; and
  • The potential consequences of violating the policy, including discipline or termination.

Above all, the policy should foster a respectful and safe environment that makes employees feel comfortable to report any and all suspicious or threatening behavior without fear of retaliation or retribution.

Employees should feel that any report made will be investigated fully and promptly remedied. Therefore, it is critical that an employer relies on factual information (including observed behavior) and avoids unfair labeling or stereotyping in order to remain compliant with civil rights, privacy and other applicable federal and state laws.

In addition, an employer may choose to add a policy provision that gives it the right to search an employee's desk and property if it suspects the presence of a prohibited weapon or other suspicious materials.

An employer may also seek to prohibit former employees from returning to the workplace as a way to deter disgruntled or potentially violent former employees. Moreover, an employer may obligate employees to report if they have obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) against someone or if they are the subject of one.

Once a workplace violence policy is prepared, an employer should distribute it to employees in the same manner as the company's other policies and procedures (e.g., EEO and harassment policies), such as inclusion in an employee handbook or posted on the company's intranet. An employer should also regularly review the policy with all employees.

Step 2: Create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP)

The effectiveness of any active shooter preparedness program is greatly enhanced with the creation of an emergency action plan (EAP). The goal of any effective EAP is to better prepare employees to respond to an emergency, such as an active shooter situation, and help minimize loss of life. An EAP should be created with the input of several stakeholders, including, but not limited to, representatives from senior management, HR, facility/property owners, in-house legal counsel, security and local law enforcement and/or emergency responders.

One of the major components of an EAP is the designation of a management response team (MRT), which should include a representative from management, HR, security and in-house counsel. An employer may also find it appropriate, based on the nature of the business and the location, to include representatives from local law enforcement, outside counsel and threat assessment and/or risk management professionals. Once identified, an MRT is typically tasked with developing the components of an EAP that anticipates how the employer will deal with workplace violence.

Specifically, an effective EAP includes the following:

  • A preferred method for reporting different types of emergencies, e.g., active shooters, fires;
  • An evacuation policy and procedure;
  • Emergency escape procedures and route assignments, including floor plans and identification of designated safe areas;
  • Contact information for and responsibilities of individuals to be contacted under the EAP;
  • Information concerning local hospitals, including name, telephone number and distance from the workplace;
  • The creation of a "communication tree" used to inform employees of danger by alarms, emails, calls and texts;
  • A plan on how to notify families during and after the incident and address media communications; and
  • An emergency notification system to alert various parties of an emergency, including:
    • Individuals at remote locations near the premises;
    • Local law enforcement; and
    • Local hospitals.

Teaching managers and employees on how to communicate in such a situation is as vital as training staff in evacuation procedures. Any response should be activated in plain English and in a uniform and agreed upon language by management, HR, facility managers, security (if any), local law enforcement and other stakeholders.

The needs of individuals with disabilities or access and functional issues who may require assistance during an evacuation or shelter-in-place must be addressed in an EAP:

  • Ask, but do not require, employees to self-identify whether they may need assistance and the type(s) of assistance needed;
  • Create a customized plan for an employee who self-identifies that covers the assistance required, the name of the person(s) volunteering to assist, accountability protocol, the type of equipment required (if any) and the evacuation route from the assigned work space; and
  • Ensure employees with self-identified assistance needs can be accounted for during and after an incident.

An employer should review the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to ensure it complies with provisions related to disability-related inquiries and reasonable accommodations.

In addition, notifications of an emergency should be made in a variety of formats so that they are accessible to persons with special needs. For example, visual alerts (e.g., flashing lights) are only useful if a person can see them; auditory aids and cues (e.g., sirens) are only useful if a person can hear them. An employer should consider implementing emergency signals that have both visual and audio components, vibrating alerts and/or signs with text and pictures depicting emergency messages. This way, the employer can ensure it covers employees and visitors who may be:

  • Deaf or hard of hearing;
  • Blind;
  • Temporarily disabled; or
  • Limited in English proficiency.

The EAP must also ensure emergency exits are accessible for those with limited mobility.

An employer should note that even if it chooses to not implement an EAP, it has a legal duty under the "General Duty Clause" of the federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) interprets this to include the responsibility to prevent harm to employees from workplace violence.

Step 3: Offer Training to Employees

The best way to prepare employees on how to react quickly and effectively in an active shooter situation, as well as give them more peace of mind, is to offer active shooter training. Although an employer is under no legal obligation to conduct active shooter training, it should nonetheless establish awareness among its staff and provide them with the appropriate responses to the threat of an active shooter.

Most employers lack the expertise to conduct the training themselves, so they should look to outside resources for help, such as local law enforcement agencies or the DHS.

The method of employee training chosen depends on several factors, including, but not limited to, cost, scheduling availability and ability to reach all employees. For instance, if it is difficult to obtain a time commitment from employees for the duration of a course, an employer can choose to show employees a training video offered by the DHS. Among various other materials offered to the public, the DHS has put out several videos that showcase instructions on how to best respond to an active shooter situation depending on his or her location in the workplace.

"Run, Hide, Fight" is a six-minute video that dramatizes an active shooter incident in the workplace. The video exemplifies the unpredictability and quick evolution of an active shooter situation and demonstrates response actions during such an incident. The DHS, along with multiple federal agencies, endorse the "Run, Hide, Fight" mindset for determining what option is appropriate, depending on how close the employee is to the shooter. Below are the DHS's recommendations that an employer should pass on to its employees:

Run. The first recommendation is to run and exit the building (if possible) using the safest route and to proceed presumably far away enough from the danger or to a designated assembly location. However, since an active shooter situation is dynamic and unpredictable, employees should not feel forced to head to this location if they feel they would still be in danger.

Employees who run should be trained to:

  • Leave their personal belongings behind;
  • Escape regardless of whether others agree to follow (one should not stay behind because others refuse to leave);
  • Help others escape, if possible;
  • Not attempt to move the wounded;
  • Prevent individuals from entering an area where the active shooter may be;
  • Keep their hands visible and in the air to signal they are unarmed to first responders;
  • Follow first responders' instructions; and
  • Call 911 when safe and provide the following information:
    • Location of active shooter(s);
    • Location of caller;
    • Number of shooters, if more than one;
    • If there is law enforcement on-site (if known);
    • Physical description of shooter(s);
    • Type and number of weapons used by shooter(s);
    • Use or threat of explosives/improvised explosive devices (IEDs);
    • If shooting is still occurring; and
    • Number of potential victims at the scene.

Hide. If running is not a safe option and escape is therefore not possible, employees should hide in a safe place (e.g., a room with a locking door, thick walls and few windows) and take the following steps:

  • Stay out of the active shooter's view;
  • Lock the doors and/or barricade them with heavy furniture if possible, e.g., filing cabinet, desk;
  • Turn off the lights;
  • Close, cover and move away from any windows;
  • Silence all cell phones and other electronic devices, including shutting off the vibrating feature;
  • Remain silent;
  • Look for other avenues for escape;
  • Identify ad hoc weapons; and
  • Remain in place until given the all clear by identifiable law enforcement.

In addition, employees should be made aware of the difference between cover and concealment. Generally, cover might protect a person from gunfire while concealment will merely hide a person from the view of the active shooter. Finding cover is preferable, but if cover is not available, employees should find a position of concealment.

Fight. When running or hiding is not possible and an employee is in imminent danger (i.e., comes face-to-face with the shooter), the only option left may be to fight and to try and disrupt or incapacitate the shooter. An employer must make it clear that confronting an active shooter is never a requirement and that how each employee chooses to respond if directly confronted by an active shooter is up to him or her. Employees that choose to fight should:

  • Act as aggressively as possible;
  • Throw items and use improvised weapons (e.g., fire extinguishers, chairs);
  • Yell;
  • Work together to incapacitate the active shooter; and
  • Commit to their actions.

Also, employees must know that when law enforcement arrives on the scene, they should do the following:

  • Remain calm and follow instructions;
  • Drop items in their hands, e.g., bags, jackets;
  • Raise hands and spread fingers;
  • Keep hands visible at all times;
  • Avoid quick movement towards officers, such as holding on to them for safety;
  • Avoid pointing, screaming or yelling; and
  • Not ask questions when evacuating.

An employer should also stress to employees that in the event of an active shooter incident and upon arriving at a safe location, they will likely be held in that area by law enforcement until the situation is under control and all witnesses have been identified and questioned. An employee should not leave the area until law enforcement has instructed him or her to do so.

If an employer chooses to offer in-person training courses for its employees, it may consider partnering with local law enforcement or with a private company that specializes in security and risk management. For example, an employer may have the local police department come in and provide training and run mock exercises with employees. An increasing number of local police departments, such as the New York City Police Department, offer such classes to employees and provide insight from lessons drawn from past incidents. For example, a law enforcement officer will likely train employees on how to identify the sound of gunfire. In addition, an officer will likely urge that employees run towards an escape route rather than stopping to call 911. Such a call to authorities should instead be made once the employee has safely fled from the scene and has found a landline, if possible, since police departments are often unable to locate someone who calls from a cell phone. Also, an officer may provide tips on the best places to hide (e.g., behind a file cabinet vs. under a desk) if one is in a situation where he or she cannot escape. The employer should make clear that the recommendations are those of law enforcement, not the employer.

An employer that uses a private company should make sure to vet qualifications carefully and check references. The employer should also confirm the company has sufficient insurance in the event an employee is injured during an exercise.

Also, unlike other types of workplace violence, there are rarely any warning signs of an active shooter incident. In any event, an employer should ensure that its employees are aware of some characteristics of potentially violent behavior in an employee, former employee or visitor. An employee should be urged to alert a supervisor or HR if he or she believes an individual exhibits potentially violent behavior. The following is a list of some behavioral indicators of potentially violent behavior:

  • Depression and/or withdrawal;
  • Resistance and overreaction to changes in policies and procedures;
  • Increased severe mood swings;
  • Noticeably unstable, emotional responses;
  • Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation;
  • Suicidal indications;
  • Comments about "putting things in order";
  • Empathy with individuals who commit violence; and
  • Increase in unsolicited comments about firearms, other dangerous weapons and violent crimes.

Step 4: Conduct Active Shooter Drills

Most workplaces have evacuation drills for fires and other natural disasters while very few actually have such exercises for active shooter events. To be prepared for such an incident, an employer should conduct active shooter drills so that employees are better able to retain certain response techniques and strategies. Such drills, for example, will allow employees to practice getting to escape routes as well as make them aware of certain rooms that are typically locked. An employer should include local law enforcement, facility managers and building security so that everyone knows not only his or her role but also the role of others at the scene.

Before a drill is conducted, law enforcement officials should walk through the facility to provide input on shelter sites and escape routes. This will also advise them of where to find persons with disabilities or access or functional needs who may be unable to evacuate the premises on their own.

An active shooter drill can take several forms depending on the size of the facility and staff and on employer resources. For example, a drill can include the entire facility population or be narrower in scope to address a small portion of the facility or population. An employer may choose to use actors to pose as shooters to force an employee to determine the best course of action in that particular scenario, e.g., run, hide or fight. All drills should be announced prior to conducting them. Because active shooter incidents are so unpredictable, several scenarios should be considered.

An employer should ensure that the drill assists an employee to:

  • Recognize the sound of gunshots;
  • React quickly when gunfire is heard and/or when a shooting is witnessed, e.g., run, hide or fight;
  • Know when and where to call 911;
  • React appropriately when law enforcement arrives; and
  • Adopt the survival mindset during times of a crisis.

At the conclusion of every drill, the employer or the trainer conducting the exercise should provide employees with feedback on how they performed. Also, as with every drill or training exercise, an active shooter drill should be done on a regular basis to ensure the best chance of retention.

An employer should consider giving employees advance notice when an active shooter drill is to be conducted. In light of the nature of the drill, including the simulation of conduct typical to an active shooter and the use of firearms, employees may become traumatized and distressed if they are unaware that it is just a drill.

Step 5: Perform a Safety and Security Audit

An employer should also perform a comprehensive audit to identify and correct any gaps in security or other safety issues, e.g., broken locks and malfunctioning security systems. An employer should seek the input of local law enforcement during such an audit. An employer would also be well-advised to coordinate with the facility manager as many of these issues will require his or her input and/or assistance. For example, an employer may look to a facility manager to:

  • Institute access controls, e.g., keys, security pass codes;
  • Distribute critical items to appropriate managers and employees, including
    • Floor plans;
    • Keys;
    • Facility personnel lists and telephone numbers; and
    • Daily schedules;
  • Coordinate with the facility's security department (if any) to ensure the physical security of the location;
  • Assemble crisis kits containing:
    • Radios;
    • Floor plans;
    • Staff roster and employees' emergency contact numbers;
    • First aid kits; and
    • Flashlights.
  • Place removable floor plans near entrances and exits for emergency responders;
  • Activate the emergency notification system when an emergency situation occurs; and
  • Ensure that the facility has at least two evacuation routes.

An employer may consider creating a "safe room," which involves great expense and the assistance of a company with such design and security expertise.

During this audit, an employer may realize that it does not have a way to determine which employees are in the workplace at a given time. This information could prove crucial in the aftermath of an active shooter incident in aiding the employer as well as law enforcement in accounting for employees present at the time of the incident. An employer, therefore, may choose to implement a sign in/sign out system each time an employee enters and leaves the building. An employer may also look to require its employees to update their personal information and emergency contact information periodically.

Step 6: Develop a Plan to Manage the Aftermath of an Active Shooter Incident

An employer is also urged to develop a plan to manage the consequences of an active shooter incident. For instance, after an active shooter has been incapacitated or apprehended and is no longer a threat and law enforcement have evacuated the wounded, HR and/or management should engage in post-event assessments and activities in coordination with local law enforcement and emergency personnel, including:

  • Accounting for all individuals at one or more designated assembly points to determine who, if anyone, is missing;
  • Notifying families of individuals affected by the active shooter, including notification of any casualties in coordination with law enforcement;
  • Assessing the psychological state of individuals at the scene and referring them to health care specialists accordingly;
  • Identifying and filling any critical personnel or operational gaps left in the organization as a result of the active shooter;
  • Employing continuity of operation plans to ensure essential functions are carried out; and
  • Determining a transition plan that includes when to resume normal operations.

The location of the active shooter incident will be an active crime scene. Employees should be urged not to touch anything unless it involves tending to the wounded. An employer should also discuss the implications of the facility as a crime scene with local law enforcement officials in advance. For example, the employer may need to alter daily activities in order for law enforcement and first responders to adequately investigate and clear the scene.

Moreover, an employer should coordinate with facility administrators and key personnel to develop a plan to rehabilitate the facility to an acceptable level for work operations, if necessary.

An employer must develop a system on how to communicate with employees' family members in the aftermath of an active shooter incident. In the event the immediate reunification of loved ones is not possible, providing family members with timely, accurate and relevant information is vital. It must be understood by all those involved that having family members wait for long periods of time for information about their loves ones not only adds to their stress and frustration but can also escalate the emotions of the entire group. Some essential steps to help establish trust and provide family members with a sense of control include:

  • Identifying a safe location separate from distractions and/or media and the general public, but close enough to allow family members to feel connected in proximity to their loved ones;
  • Scheduling periodic updates even if no additional information is available;
  • Explaining what to expect when reunited with their loved ones; and
  • Ensuring effective communication with those who have language barriers or need other accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing family members.

Before an active shooter incident, it must also be determined how, when and by whom loved ones will be informed if their loved one is missing or has been injured or killed. This will ensure that families and loved ones receive accurate and timely information in a clear and compassionate way. However, the employer must always remember that law enforcement generally takes the lead on death notifications related to criminal activity, such as an active shooter incident.

An employer should also develop a plan to provide counseling or other types of psychological first aid to employees, as an important part of recovery from such a traumatic situation is to treat the emotional side effects of violence and stress. An employer should be prepared in the event employees experience reactions (e.g., physical, psychological, behavioral, spiritual) since some of these reactions may cause enough distress to interfere with adequate coping and daily work activities. An employer should look to its employee assistance program (if available) or reach out to local crisis centers, mental health services and support groups to identify resources that it can utilize in the event of an emergency.

Finally, an employer should also plan on analyzing the incident and creating an action report. In the report, the employer should, among other things, identify successes and failures that occurred during the event; evaluate the effectiveness of its EAP; and describe and define a plan for making improvements to the EAP.

Additional Resources

Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

Risk Management - Health, Safety, Security > Workplace Security

Employee Management > Training and Development

How to Deal With an Employee Who Is a "Direct Threat" to Self or Others

How to Handle a Violent Employee

Handling Violence in the Workplace- Supervisor Briefing

Active Shooter: How to Respond - Department of Homeland Security

Active Shooter Educational Materials - Department of Homeland Security