How to Prepare for Active Shooters in the Workplace

With mass shootings on the rise, experts share best practices for training employees how to react in an active shooter situation at work.
active shooter office

Numerous crisis consultants and security firms have recently entered the L&D world to help prepare and train employees for an active shooter situation in the workplace, and not without reason; 2017 broke the record for the most mass shooting deaths ever recorded. At work, a 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that workplace homicides were up from 83 cases in 2015 to 500 cases in 2016, with shootings accounting for 79 percent of deaths.

According to Covenant Security Services Vice President James McGinty in a 2016 NPR report, 75 to 80 percent of businesses are looking to do some type of active shooter policy procedure and training. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued guidelines for what to do in an active shooter situation: run, hide, fight. Most external training organizations and consultants teach to that protocol, and some take their own approach.

Laurence Barton, a threat management and workplace violence expert, said employees want to know the implications of the run, hide, fight protocol. “Employees are craving any kind of insight that can be provided on what to do with both an active shooter and a hostile work environment,” he said.

Barton, who also trains with the FBI, said from a learning perspective there must be an honest dialogue. He sees training for an active shooter in the same realm as training for a fire or flood. “The chief learning officer has a huge opportunity to lead a discussion about workplace safety,” he said. “[Employees] are yearning to be informed about how the world is changing and how threats get processed at work.”

Barton said the ideal training for an active shooter is an eight- to 10-minute video at a sixth-grade literacy level embedded in a company’s LMS. He added that the video should feature an SME rather than a corporate head of security. “You want to have a subject matter expert who works with law enforcement and can speak the language of all employees,” he said. For Barton’s clients, he sends a video crew to the building to film a few examples of a potential shooter approaching the building.

“Get a learning module that’s brief, nonalarmist and a message that says, ‘We want to keep you safe.’ ” He said it should include information about exits, how to run in zig zags to be a moving target and other practical knowledge. “The biggest thing is to teach how to be situationally aware,” Barton said. “If something seems out of place or if you see something that is suspicious, talk with security, with HR or with a supervisor.”

Don’t Train With Fear

Barton said the focus should be on creating awareness — not paranoia — for employees. “When some companies have created these videos that show blood and guts — that is not in any way the kind of learning that stays with people. In fact, it repulses them,” he said.

Risk management firm Experior Group doesn’t aim to induce fear in employees. “Cops or military guys like to have it very realistic because they think the more real it is the more they can find out,” said Aric Mutchnick, the firm’s president. “That is true if you’re a tactical team, but you can’t apply tactical training to a civilian population.” He said he’s seen a few consultants do realistic training with orange weapons, which he called “insanity.”

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The go-to training video for many companies, with more than 7 million YouTube views, is the city of Houston’s active shooter training video, which graphically shows employees being shot down. “But employees get scared,” he said. “I just don’t believe scaring people is the way to teach them. It just promotes anxiety.”

The Problem With Run, Hide, Fight

Mutchnick said a lot of consultants use the run, hide, fight method because it’s an easy concept to teach. “Anybody who has ever seen a campfire could train for stop, drop and roll. Same idea,” he said. “But people are trying to be clever about it and they’ll put it in a nice package and wrap it up. Every guy who has spent 10 minutes in law enforcement and thinks he has an understanding in security is out there training on run, hide, fight.”

Mutchnick takes issue with the methodology often being taught as an equal distribution of choice; one can either run, hide or fight. “It should be 90 percent run, 8 percent hide until you can run, and then [as for] fight, really? Are you kidding?” he said. “I don’t know how you would even train on that.”

Instead, Mutchnick’s company uses three-phased “red ball drills” to physically walk through a space to see how things play out. First, there is a review of the content, grammar, structure and format of the company’s crisis plan. Next, there is a physical assessment of the property. “The problems of a commercial building are not the problems of a hospital or a school,” he said. “Run, hide, fight is a giant blanket they throw over the problem as a response, but it doesn’t deal with any site-specific issues.” He said any policy and procedure they develop must fit within the culture and context of each building. Last, a role-player holds the red ball, which symbolizes an active shooter. A moderator leads the exercises and conversation and carries a stopwatch as they run through seven or eight scenarios per day.

Mutchnick stressed that the drills are not a test or a “gotcha exercise” but, rather, a conversation, so he can approach policy and procedure with the help of the employees. “I’m not a security expert coming in and telling them what they should do; I’m a security expert that’s simply asking the right questions and providing a platform where they feel comfortable sharing knowledge they already have,” he said.

But Mutchnick said the red ball drills are not the end-all, be-all of active shooter readiness. “They don’t deal with recovery or pre-identifying violent behavior from an HR perspective,” he said. “There’s a comprehensive element to doing active shooter training. It should be crisis response in general, and your active shooter protocol should fall somewhere within that.”

“Instant Credibility”

While there may be many security firms to choose from, a company leader with a law enforcement or military background seems to attract clients. Two clients were drawn to Trident Shield, a security company that provides workplace violence and active shooter readiness programs, because of the founder’s background as a former Navy SEAL and Boston SWAT Officer.

John Boyle, health and safety director of Apex Clean Energy and a client of Trident Shield, said the background of Trident Shield’s founder Jason Perry gave him “instant credibility.” Phil Wendel, the founder of ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers who also uses Trident Shield’s training programs, agreed. “Our government has already spent millions training Jason,” Wendel said.

Perry’s wife, Lauren, serves as vice president of operations at Trident Shield. “Lauren brings it home for someone who’s not the alpha stereotype who’s going to follow a navy seal,” Boyle said. “It’s a great balance of bringing in millions of dollars of training and a female touch making it all make sense.”

Boyle said he likes that the training demystifies weapons. He said the training goes through Gun 101 from a pistol to a rifle. “[The training] shows statistically that there are instances where an active shooter comes in and because of the lack of knowledge on the weapon people will cower in a corner and this active shooter potentially has all the time in the world to reload, rearm and reengage shooting,” Boyle said.

He said the training does address fighting the shooter, teaching how to create a misfire and make the weapon system inoperable, which Lauren Perry demonstrates by putting her hand over the upper of a pistol. “That’s a great tip to realize you’re not out of the fight,” Boyle said. “People who inherently have a fear of weapon systems understand it better walking out.”

At ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers, Wendel said there was a lot of hesitancy about the training at first, but he received overwhelmingly positive feedback. He said active shooter training is as important as training how to use an AED in the gym. “Speaking as an owner, it would be a dereliction of your responsibility if you don’t look after the welfare of your employees,” he said.

The Cost

Trident Shield’s in-person seminars run between $2,500 and $10,000 per session. Perry said sessions are customized, which accounts for the variance in pricing. Session length, company size and complexity, amount of custom content and location influence the cost, he said.

“Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge we face every day is budget,” workplace violence expert Barton said. For companies that don’t have the budget to conduct in-person training, he advises looking at online training options. “If you at least have a video or some type of learning module, that’s a really good start,” he said.

At Trident Shield, online training programs start at $30 per person, scaling down based on volume. In addition to the popular but graphic Houston training video, a few companies offer free online training videos. Education technology company Skillsoft, for example, offers an online active shooter training course that is free to all.

More than 566 customers currently use Skillsoft’s active shooter content as part of their online management system for more than 100,000 learners. Norman Ford, vice president of compliance solutions at Skillsoft, said the company was inspired to make the training free by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who stood up against gun violence after a February 2018 shooting at the school left 17 dead.

“We decided something that we could do is to equip people with knowledge on how best to protect themselves,” Ford said. He added that the active shooter training is one of the most requested training programs at Skillsoft, and they typically see a significant spike in users after a national mass shooting.

This story originally appeared in Talent Economy‘s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.

Ave Rio is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email