Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on January 4, 2016.

Shooter. Now What?

On the heels of deadly incidents in Paris and San Bernardino,
NFPA hosts a discussion on active-shooter preparation and response for civilians.

IN DECEMBER, SYED RIZWAN FAROOK AND TASHFEEN MALIK arrived at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, the site of a holiday party for county employees. The couple, dressed in full combat gear and carrying assault rifles, entered the facility’s conference center and began shooting. Police arrived only four minutes later, but by then 14 people were dead and 22 were injured, most of them co-workers of Farook’s. Soon after, both assailants were killed in a gun battle with police.

Law enforcement and security experts admit that there is often little they can do to protect civilians in the early minutes of an active-shooter event. The best course of action, many experts now say, may be to better prepare civilians for what actions to take in the first moments of a shooter event, where split-second decisions can mean life or death.

“Police can conduct drills, but those focus mostly on how to methodically clear a building and verify that the immediate threat has passed—to me the discussion is shifting toward what the occupants of a building can do in an active-shooter situation,” said Robert Solomon, NFPA’s division manager of Building and Life Safety. “You need to prepare so you know the places to hide, and where the exits are so you can get out.”

In January, NFPA will co-host a high-level meeting in Arlington, Virginia, to discuss active-shooter preparation and response, with a focus on what civilians can do to better protect themselves. The event, co-hosted by ASIS International, a security and resiliency standards organization, will bring together more than 40 representatives from government, law enforcement, industry groups, codes and standards development organizations, and more.

More In a Flash

“The intent of the meeting is to get guidance tools out there to help civilian response,” said Sue Carioti, the director of standards and guidance at ASIS. “When waiting for law enforcement to arrive, how can people be prepared to mitigate fatalities from the awful events we are seeing in the news these days? What are the basic things they need to have in place?”

While the impact of mass shootings can linger for years, the events themselves tend to be brief. Of the 160 active-shooter incidents in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, duration could be determined in 64 of them; of those, roughly two-thirds ended within five minutes, and a third ended in less than two minutes, according to a 2014 joint study between the FBI and Texas State University. In about half of all active-shooter incidents during that period, the shooter either fled the scene or committed suicide before police could act, the study found.

FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) studies have estimated average police response times to active-shooter incidents at between three and 15 minutes. In most high-profile mass shootings—including Virginia Tech in 2007, Fort Hood Army Base in 2009, Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Century 21 Theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, and San Bernardino—police were on scene within five minutes, the FBI study found. Still, 98 people were killed and 143 were injured in those five events. “This adds to the growing evidence that citizens must have insight on how to respond” in an active shooter incident, the FBI/Texas State report said.

Run, hide, fight

Public awareness campaigns do already exist, most notably the DHS’s Active Shooter Awareness Program, which launched in 2008. The campaign includes workshops, videos, webinars, and even a pocket reference guide on how to train staff, recognize the signs of potentially violent employee behavior, and develop plans on what to do if an active shooter is in the vicinity.

The backbone of DHS’s message is “run, hide, fight.” In an active shooter incident, DHS advises civilians to run out and away from the building, if possible; if not, find a secure place to hide and wait for law enforcement; or, in extreme situations where lives are threatened, fight back against the shooter.

“I have to imagine, with the recent events, there will be a lot of discussion at the workshop centered on this topic,” Solomon said. “After San Bernardino, I heard the ‘run, hide, fight’ idea being discussed a lot in media coverage. But that brings up another question: How do we get building occupants to practice this? There are very few offices that even conduct fire drills.”

Solomon said NFPA will need to figure out how to integrate occupant preparedness for active-shooter situations into the fire emergency planning strategies that already exist. Preparedness drills for employees have already moved beyond fire in some places, most notably in California, where earthquake drills are common, Solomon said. Active shooter drills could be next. “We need to start looking at different hazards and different scenarios, which is why you see NFPA teaming up with groups like ASIS,” he said. “We have to arm building occupants with information. We are considering everything.”

Strategies are being considered all over the country. A school in Alabama last year sent a letter home to parents asking for children to bring canned goods to school to hurl at would-be intruders. In one DHS video, an employee uses a fire extinguisher to bludgeon an attacker with an assault rifle. A school in Indiana has installed a $400,000 security system that includes exploding smoke cannons hidden in the ceiling that police can deploy remotely to create a thick cloud of smoke, a tactic that reduces visibility to near zero for an intruder—and also for any students who might need to escape. (The system also set off the fire alarm in a demonstration the school conducted for NBC’s “The Today Show.”) Aftermarket door barricades are also becoming widely used to lock students into classrooms to protect them from intruders, but the devices don’t comply with the fire code.

“Some of these things make us nervous,” Solomon said. “Well-meaning ideas like smoke cannons in the corridors of schools create unintended consequences and violate the most fundamental idea of the means of egress.”

Some of those concerns were addressed during an NFPA workshop on school safety and security held in December 2014 in Maryland. January’s meeting, in addition to addressing civilian action in an active-shooter situation, will build on how new security measures can co-exist with fire safety.

“Security best practice might not fit with fire safety best practice—that’s part of the reason we’re having this meeting, to flesh out some of this stuff,” Carioti said. “How we move forward has yet to be determined, but we expect a lot of critical input from attendees.”

Information from the January workshop will be made available to standards developers, private-sector interests, and government organizations to better inform them on how policies on this issue should be developed and implemented, Solomon said.

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Illustration: Shutterstock.