Experts: Workplaces should have active-shooter plans in place (+video)

In their own words: Kansas mass shooting and its aftermath

Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle
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Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle

At a time when active-shooting incidents are rising – with one of the latest at Excel Industries in Hesston – workplaces need policies and drills on how employees should react during the critical moments of the attack, experts say.

The average number of such shooting attacks increased from about one every two months to more than one a month, or 16.4 annually, from 2007 to 2013, according to a study by the FBI and Texas State University. The FBI defines an “active shooter event” as “individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in populated areas (excluding shootings related to gang or drug violence.)”

The toll: 160 shootings nationwide between 2000 and 2013, leaving 486 dead and 557 wounded, not including the shooters.

Despite the mounting violence, many employers haven’t taken steps to prepare their workers, experts say. The business world isn’t alone. Federal facilities tend to drill more for fires or tornadoes than for shooters, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

486 killed in active-shooting incidents in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013

557 wounded in active-shooting incidents

160 active-shooter events between 2000 and 2013

Experts say workplaces often don’t plan for shootings partly because they think “it won’t happen here.” And with busy work schedules and constrained budgets, drafting a well-thought-out policy, fitting in the training and incurring the expense of drills are often perceived as things that can wait or be avoided.

Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle

Several Excel workers interviewed by The Eagle said that before the Feb. 25 attack by Cedric Ford, they didn’t get information or drills on what to do during a shooting. Ford, who was armed with an assault rifle and pistol, killed three co-workers and wounded 14 people. The Hesston police chief shot and killed the second-shift worker after Ford gunned his way through the sprawling plant.

The Excel employees described a scene where workers, who are required to wear earplugs because of the noisy manufacturing operation, ran for doors in a panic. After a pause, they realized that the popping sounds they at first dismissed as production or maintenance-related were actually gunshots.

They fled in some cases after momentary pauses because they thought there was a fire – they heard someone yelling “fire.”

One wounded Excel manager on a safety committee told The Eagle that “fire” was “our code word for a shooter.”

Security experts say code words can cause confusion when seconds save lives. There should be clear, direct warnings, if possible on an intercom. Such as “Gun! Get out!”

John Price, a 47-year-old Excel welder who had been a Navy firefighter, said that when he heard “fire,” he paused to look for smoke or flames.

“That’s why I didn’t run,” he said.

He thought he had time.

“I wish they’d just say ‘shooter,’ not ‘fire.’ ”

An Excel Industries spokeswoman would not comment on Friday.

Representatives of Wichita aircraft plants would not say whether they have policies, training and drills specifically for active shootings.

Because of sheer numbers, larger workplaces become magnets for personal problems that employees bring in through the workplace door, says Wichita private investigator Emery Goad. According to experts, the shootings often are carried out by employees aided by their access and familiarity with the workplace. The attacks are often unexpected and difficult to prevent.

“There’s just no choice” but to have an active-shooter plan and prepare, Goad said.

The preparation helps businesses protect their employees and limit their liability if workers were to bring a lawsuit, Goad and others in the security and investigative fields said.

How to prepare

“Any business … you have an obligation to have a policy in place that gives the guidelines to personnel” on what to do in a shooting, said Ty Moeder, a former police tactical supervisor and instructor and founding partner of Mitigation Dynamics in Lee’s Summit, Mo. (Some people might recognize Moeder as a former University of Kansas football player, a defensive end from 1989 to 1993.)

Moeder’s business consults on protection for corporate, health-care, governmental, academic and faith-based organizations.

In a nation where there is on average a mass shooting every eight days, Moeder said, it’s “mind-blowing” if businesses don’t have a policy.

“I believe you have a moral obligation, and I would put it further – you have a legal obligation,” including liability, he said.

An effective active-shooter policy has to be relevant to each workplace, so it shouldn’t be “canned” and shouldn’t be just going through the motions, checking off boxes on a form, Moeder said.

Your intuition is the strongest gift you have to keep yourself safe.

Ty Moeder of Mitigation Dynamics

Moeder cited underlying factors that precede the attacks.

▪ “When people go to work, their personal lives aren’t left at home.” Related to that is a statistic Moeder cites: The No. 2 cause of death for women in the workplace is homicide, often related to domestic violence.

▪ “Your intuition is the strongest gift you have to keep yourself safe.” So it’s vital for employees to pay attention to their co-workers and surroundings, listen to their gut and report it or share it, he said.

If a shooting occurs, he said, use plain language to warn others.

Moeder said he prefers to use the phrase “armed violent intruder” rather than “active shooter” when talking about the attacks, because some are committed with a knife or blunt object, which also can be lethal and even more hard to detect until it’s too late, because there isn’t the sound of gunfire.

Many entities, including the federal government, recommend the “run, hide, fight” concept for dealing with a shooter – the idea that it’s best to first get as far away as possible, and if that’s not an option, workers should hide or barricade themselves in somewhere. As a last resort, they should fight aggressively with every tool they have.

When people flee, Moeder said, they “are just like animals. When under duress, we all clump together.” That can increase the carnage, he said.

So spread out and stay out of sight of the attacker.

Some of his other advice: If you can’t escape, put up barriers, including a barricade using furniture. A locked office door can delay a shooter just enough so that he moves on.

“One of the things we always say is ‘Seconds save lives.’ ”

Don’t turn on a fire alarm to warn others, Moeder advises. It can mask the sound of gunfire, making it harder for others to be aware of the real threat. Many workers ignore fire alarms unless they smell smoke.

Once you flee the building, don’t assume you are safe. Assume that there is more than one attacker. Moeder talks about having your “head on a swivel.”

“You just can’t let down your guard,” Moeder said.

Whether to allow employees to carry guns into a building to be used for defense is a complicated issue, he said. There are many considerations. It might make sense to have some employees armed for protection. But if they are mistaken for attackers when police arrive, it could end tragically, he said.

Little warning

Another Kansas City-area business, SafeDefend in Gardner, provides what it calls a “comprehensive active-shooter response system” that includes training, emergency notification and “tools to use in an active-shooter crisis.”

Jeff Green, president and CEO and a former school principal, said workplace violence tends to occur suddenly without much warning. And from what he has learned about the mower-production plant in Hesston, it didn’t appear Ford had been scheming for the attack.

“He didn’t start his day planning to do this,” Green said. “So it’s not typically that you have a lot of head’s-up.”

Another factor: Almost all workplace violence is committed by employees or a direct associate who know how to get in, where to go and when the shifts change, “so it’s very difficult to prevent someone from coming in,” Green said.

That’s why a business needs to pay attention to how its employees are acting. Potential triggers can include relationship changes, job-performance issues and child custody. It doesn’t mean that anyone who is upset could become an active shooter. And it’s not that everyone needs to be “telling on everyone,” Green said, which is not conducive to business.

Despite the damage a shooting does, it’s common for businesses not to have an active-shooter plan, Green said. Or if they do, it’s too basic and not effective. That likely stems from shootings being seen as rare, he said.

But the attack in a small Kansas town “shows it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”

Another consideration, he said, is that a mass shooting does more damage than a fire or a storm.

Green recommends a visual alert system. SafeDefend offers a system that notifies 911, sends texts and e-mail alerts to all employees and activates strobe lights and sirens.

What the feds say

In November, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a document titled “Planning and Response to an Active Shooter,” focused on federal facilities. It notes that although most federal facilities do evacuation drills for fires and take safety measures for tornadoes, they “conduct far fewer preparedness exercises for active shooter incidents.”

It says “facilities should train facility occupants and on-site security staff in what to expect and how to react. After conducting training sessions, it is absolutely essential to reinforce the classroom or on-line instruction with realistic exercises” involving first responders.

All drills and exercises should be announced before they are done and should be conducted “on a recurring basis to keep the active shooter threat fresh in the minds of the participants.”

“It may be valuable to schedule a time for an open conversation regarding the topic at the facility. Though some individuals may find the conversation uncomfortable, they may find it reassuring to know that as a whole their organization is thinking about how best to deal with this situation.”

The document goes on to say that people will rely on their instincts and that some people might not be able to evacuate or might refuse to leave during an emergency. And it concludes: “Facilities should help occupants understand there is no perfect response.”

All employees should get training on the “run, hide, fight model,” the document says.

“Train staff to overcome denial and to respond immediately. For example, train staff to recognize the sounds of danger, act, and forcefully communicate the danger and necessary action (e.g. ‘Gun! Get out!’).” Fleeing to the designated gathering spot for a fire drill might not be safe in a shooting.

As for the “hide” portion, it says to lock doors, build a barricade with furniture, close blinds, switch off lights, silence electronic devices and keep silent while looking for escape routes. And “identify ad-hoc weapons.”

“Hide along the wall closest to the exit but out of view from the hallway.”

If fighting becomes the only option, people should “disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers, chairs, etc.”

The document cited a study showing that “potential victims themselves have disrupted 17 of 51 separate shooter incidents before law enforcement arrived.”

Contributing: Gabriella Dunn and Daniel Salazar of The Eagle

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