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Experts: Workers, businesses shouldn’t ignore ‘active shooter’ risk

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013, at 10 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 23, 2013, at 5 p.m.

It may not be something you want to think about:

A violent person moving stealthily or bursting into your workplace, your business. A pop, pop, pop of gunshots.

What can you do to prevent it? How would you react?

Run. Hide. Fight.

Wichita police Sgt. Travis Rakestraw wants you to remember those words — in that order — if an “active shooter” enters your workplace.

Rakestraw, a team leader on the SWAT unit, said the first option is to escape if it is safe or possible to do so. The second option is to hide or set up a barricade. The last resort is to fight with whatever you might use as a weapon. That’s a short version of his advice.

The options are sobering, maybe disturbing to consider, but if you don’t do the mental exercise before an emergency occurs, you might not react correctly, Rakestraw said last week, three days after gunman Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.

“I think now, as a country, we realize that we have to be more prepared for these kind of incidents,” Rakestraw said.

Just as workplaces hold fire and tornado drills, they need to prepare for the possibility of a violent attack, said Rakestraw, a Patrol North community policing supervisor.

“I don’t want it to make it sound like we’re pushing the panic button,” he said.

Still, he said, “By pretending it will never happen, we’re not doing our employees a service. We have to realize that the potential is there.

“That’s the first step — at least think about it: ‘What am I going to do if …’ ”

Have a plan

Employers also need to be thinking about it, safety experts say.

“In this day and age, I feel like it’s something, if not absolutely necessary, it’s highly recommended ... that the company has a plan in place to deal with workplace violence,” said John Buselt, a safety consultant with CIG Insurance, a locally owned insurance brokerage. “And I would say for larger companies, it should be mandatory.”

Buselt estimates that at least half of the businesses around Wichita have adopted workplace violence policies and thinks that a higher percentage of the larger businesses — 80 percent or more — have policies in place. Training is probably less common or intermittent, he said.

Not having a policy could open a business to liability, especially if it has a lot of contact with the public, said Buselt, who has helped draft workplace-violence policies.

The policies range widely, from bare bones to sophisticated procedures in which employees are specifically trained, where key employees in reception areas have panic buttons, where a certain number is used to alert security staff, he said.

“I just think businesses have to do at least what’s reasonable to protect their employees,” Buselt said. “You want a safe place to work, and you want to be perceived in the community as having a safe place to work. And your approach to workplace violence is a part of that. It is good business.”

Wichita lawyer Jay Rector, who counsels and advises employers, said he would tell a client that “the minimum is a policy,” including zero tolerance for violence or the threat of violence — “that you actually make employees aware of and enforce.”

Nowadays, the fastest way to get fired is to threaten violence or joke about it, Rector said.

“Ten or 15 years ago, you might have laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s just Joe ... that’s the way Joe talks,’ ” he said. “Today, Joe is gone.”

What the employer should try do is “not to hire the dangerous employee in the first place,” he said, which is why checking references and doing criminal background checks is important.

Rector also recommends that employers have an employee assistance program for referring workers who need counseling, are struggling with family issues, stress or psychological issues or are showing “troubling behaviors” It’s more common now for employers to ask an employee to get a psychological evaluation if they see a problem, he said.

He senses that more workplaces are using security measures, including surveillance cameras, buzzers to get in, panic buttons in reception areas and additional lighting.

During a recent visit to a larger business — one that wouldn’t seem to be at high risk — Rector said he had to go through a metal detector.

Workplace deaths

The threat can be seen in national data.

In 2012, “violence accounted for about 17 percent of all fatal work injuries,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its 2012 census included 463 homicides and 225 suicides. Shootings accounted for 81 percent of the homicides and almost half of the suicides.

Of the females who suffered fatal injuries, nearly one in three — 29 percent — involved homicides.

On its website, the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.”

OSHA says that homicide is the “fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States.” Homicide has been a leading cause of death for women in the workplace, the website says.

The agency said research has found that factors that can raise the risk of violence include: handling money; working with “volatile, unstable people”; working alone or in an isolated area; providing services or care; and being employed where alcohol is served.

Among workers with higher risks are delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents and law enforcement personnel, OSHA said.

“One of the best protections employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence,” the agency said. “This policy should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.”

It also recommends training.

“It is critical to ensure that all workers know the policy and understand that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied promptly.”

Run, hide, fight

When Rakestraw, the police sergeant, says your first reaction to an active shooter is to run, he means you first look for an escape route and flee if it’s safe to get away.

Once you’re at a safe place, then you call 911.

“We don’t want people to put themselves in danger just to call 911,” he said.

Police also don’t want someone to immediately hide when they have a chance to get out, Rakestraw said.

So it’s important for employees to know their building layout and have a backup plan for getting out.

If you can’t escape, he said, then hide. Find a place that the attacker might not know about.

If you need to, set up a barricade by putting something in front of a door, maybe in a bathroom.

Don’t give yourself away by being heard on a phone.

As a last resort, facing harm, use what you can to fight back. Throw something. Whatever it takes to stall the attacker.

“I would say don’t be a passive victim at that point,” Rakestraw said.

Roger Depue, retired former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, said he supports the concept of fighting back when it is the only option left. He noted that it remains controversial with some educators and some parents in the case of a school shooting.

“They don’t want their children to put themselves in harm’s way, but in these cases, they’re already in harm’s way,” Depue said.

Making buildings safer

Depue, founder of the Academy Group, a forensic behavioral science service business in Manassas, Va., advocates that workplaces and schools do what they can to “harden the target.”

For example, a lot of office doors don’t have locks, and they should, Depue said.

He advises corporations and schools to include and equip secure “safe rooms,” with phone access and 911 pre-dialed, in their new buildings.

He advocates the removal of push- or bar-lever doors in schools because they can be tied together by an attacker to prevent people from escaping. That happened in the Virginia Tech shooting, he said. Depue served on a governor’s panel that reviewed that shooting.

He thinks classrooms should be built so that a shooter standing outside can’t see everyone inside; it would make it easier for people to get out of the shooter’s view.

Depue had these observations about workplace attacks and mass killings:

• The most common workplace attack involves someone angry over a relationship who comes in looking for the partner, or the attacker is seeking vengeance over being disciplined or fired. Many times, the person ends up shooting other people they encounter.

“Once the shooting starts, they shoot indiscriminately.”

• About 60 percent of active shooters kill themselves or keep firing until police shoot them.

• Those who carry out mass killings “accelerate their preparations” as they get closer to the shootings. The acceleration involves buying additional magazines, weapons and vests and going to shooting ranges or taking target practice. At some point in those steps, someone might have a chance to intervene, and red flags might be noticed.

Working with law enforcement

One employer that has to think about security and risks is a hospital. Because when someone goes to a hospital, it could be the worst day of their lives.

They can be struggling with stress and emotion they don’t normally feel. And sometimes, the people going to hospitals are supporters of feuding gangs.

“Emergency rooms are clearly a hot spot for violence and unpredictable behaviors,” said Kristie Baker, nursing director for behavioral health services for Via Christi’s Wichita hospitals.

The system has a campuswide process for emergency notification and conducts drills on it, Baker said. If an active shooter showed up, a code word would go out to staff through different communication paths.

“And we’re trained how to respond to that, both in protecting our patients and protecting ourselves,” Baker said.

Part of the preparation is maintaining a collaborative relationship with law enforcement, she said.

A Via Christi focus group encompassing a wide range of staff was asked what made them feel unsafe in their work environments, which resulted in safety initiatives being put in place, said Melissa Evraets, assistant chief nursing officer.

Some of the feedback, Evraets said, was, “If we’re in trouble, we don’t want to be alone.”

Annual training involves how to get help whether you are alone or with a team. There also is annual training on how to respond to an active shooter.

One piece of the security plan involves the treatment of people suffering from possible psychiatric conditions that can affect their behavior.

Next to the system’s St. Joseph campus emergency room, which is one of the busiest in the state, there is a staff devoted to emergency psychiatric evaluations.

Patients there are treated in what Baker calls a “safe and controlled environment,” part of which involves restricting access to items that a patient could use as weapons against himself or others. Most people with psychiatric issues don’t become aggressive, she said.

Jana Lincoln, a psychiatrist who is Via Christi’s behavioral health medical director, said people with behavioral problems can show warning signs before possibly turning violent. The warning signs can include pacing, clenched fists or teeth, appearing tense or starting to yell.

Medical staff can help keep things from escalating by offering help, asking how they can make the person feel comfortable, but it doesn’t always work, Lincoln said. It takes special training to deal with someone when the situation escalates, when the person starts hitting the wall, hitting a door or throwing things, she said.

There’s one important thing to keep in mind about the mentally ill, Lincoln said: Very few become violent.

Respect and dignity

Larry Moorman, director of corporate security for Koch Industries, one of Wichita’s largest employers, says a principle is a key part of the company’s workplace security plan.

It’s what Moorman calls the principle of “respect and dignity toward people,” which fosters a respectful workplace, and that goes a long way in reducing risk, he said. Respectfulness is among the qualities the company looks for when it hires people, he said.

As part of its approach to security, the company gives training on how to respond to an active shooter, Moorman said.

That training is being refined, and it includes a video on the concept of run, hide, fight, he said.

Koch approaches security by involving departments across the company, including human resources, legal, security, public affairs and management.

The company also is using what Moorman termed “appropriate and good access control,” to reduce the chance that someone with ill intent could gain access to its workplace.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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