5 tips for preventing active shooter drills from going sideways

Just as critical as the actual real-time execution of the exercise is the planning of the event


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By Tim Goergen

Over the last few months, there have been several active shooters drills conducted in public venues – at least one in the middle of a very populated urban area during prime business hours – that ended up causing confusion, fear and some chaos. These drills are critical, and we support them, but just as critical as the actual real-time execution of the exercise is the planning of the event.

Here are a few things active shooter drill planners can do to better ensure the drill runs smoothly, not sideways.

In this May 6, 2016, photo, Forest Dale Elementary School administrative assistant Heather Fellabaum tracks an "intruder" and announces their whereabouts via the school's public address system as the school holds an intruder drill in Carmel, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
In this May 6, 2016, photo, Forest Dale Elementary School administrative assistant Heather Fellabaum tracks an "intruder" and announces their whereabouts via the school's public address system as the school holds an intruder drill in Carmel, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

1. Tabletop it first…thoroughly

Meeting with all involved groups to conduct a thorough tabletop strategy session will not only better ensure the effectiveness of your drill, but will also give you an opportunity to surface any issues of awareness and safety that need to be addressed before putting people in play. With focused insight, this planning will help you avoid having to navigate surprise weaknesses or challenges during a live event.

A real-world example of this involved an active shooter drill I was observing in a location that included CCTV cameras. These allowed security personnel to have eyes on about 80% of the property within seconds. Shockingly, when the drill went down, no one came to the CCTV room, which is where I was staged. Had they used the cameras, they could have located the shooter immediately and responded. The hope is you will surface a weakness like that in your plan during the tabletop (“You will go to the CCTV room…”) and resolve it prior to action.

2. Be smart about timing

Choosing the most appropriate day and time to conduct your drill is usually specific to nuances related to the venue.

If you’re conducting your drill at a mall, for example, you’ll want to stay away from weekends and high traffic areas. This helps avoid dealing with an undue number of people in and around the venue who are beyond your scope of control such as customers roaming around.

Also, be sure to avoid highly sensitive dates, like September 11. I know that sounds obvious, but I had to intervene in a plan by a fire department to conduct a live-action, large-scale smoke and fire drill in a high-profile area on September 11. Not a good idea.

3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Before the date of your drill, you must communicate clearly and thoroughly what is planned to occur.

Certainly, there is a need for some element of “surprise,” but failing to let all those who may be alarmed or otherwise impacted by the drill could be a recipe for disaster. This has happened several times in locations large and small and can be avoided by thinking ahead and determining who needs to be in the general “know” to avoid panic.  

Use paper flyers, high-speed outbound telephone notification systems, e-mails and texts. Have security personnel and/or your management team speak with tenants, teachers, store owners, and neighboring building management and security. Also include, of course, any potentially impacted police, fire, EMS and political entities who may not be directly involved in the scenario but who may be contacted should some alarm be raised. You may also want to notify the local media so they can assist in letting people know there is no cause for alarm.

4. Send a reminder

On the day of the drill, follow up with a high-speed outbound notification to all parties affected. Include signage on A-frames in and around the property letting people know that training is being conducted and stage safety officers in vests addressing any issues that may arise that may require the exercise to be terminated.

5. Debrief and learn

Again, this may seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon for a drill to be executed then simply ended without a plan for a thorough, all-encompassing debrief. Make sure you have a debriefing plan in place so you can identify what went right, spotlight what can be refined and learn from what may have gone wrong.

Have a solid plan for where and when you are going to meet to debrief and pre-determine who is going to run the session and how it will flow. Include all the key entities involved such as police, fire, EMS, role players and affected civilians. What did they see? How do they think it went? What challenges did they encounter and what suggestions do they have for improvement?

Have a plan for taking notes and for sharing them. The debrief is one of the most critical parts of a training drill. Leverage its power. It can save lives.

For more on this critical topic, check out the Calibre Press course, “Active Threat Incidents: Preparation, Response and Recovery.” Developed as a full-circle program, this two-day class is designed to share practical, proven strategies that will arm all first responders with the information, foresight and skills they need to effectively confront and terminate an active threat situation.


About the author

After a 30-year career in law enforcement, Chief Tim Goergen (ret.) served as the Director of Corporate Security for one of the largest property management companies in the world. He has been a member of the Calibre Press training team and is currently involved with spearheading a corporate security initiative Calibre is in the process of launching.

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