Unimaginable a generation ago, mass shootings in schools and businesses across the United States are now a sad reality. To learn current best practices for preparedness and response planning for active shooters , 40 leaders from area schools and businesses participated in an interactive seminar titled “Keeping our Communities Safe” organized by American Alarm and Communications on October 23, 2013 at the company’s Arlington, Mass. training center.
The program was led by two public safety officials from the town of Winchester, Mass., Fire Captain Rick Tustin and Police Sergeant Dan Perenick, who are experts in emergency preparedness planning for schools and businesses. Both are also certified trainers for the A.L.I.C.E. program, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate and is an emerging national standard for active shooter situations.
“What we have learned by studying these tragedies is that they happen quickly, and the cavalry isn’t always going to get there in time,” Tustin told the group. “You need to work on prevention, preparedness, and if the worst happens, your people need to be trained to react.”
Tustin and Perenick presented data from a study by Texas State University that researched 84 cases of active shooter events in the United States between 2000 and 2010. The study found that 37 percent of the shootings happened in businesses, 34 percent in schools and 17 percent in outdoor public venues. In nearly half of the cases, the event was over in less than 8 minutes.
Analysis of the Virginia Tech rampage in 2007 that claimed 32 lives proved particularly striking Tustin and Perenick said, and it has changed the way public safety officials now recommend people react when there is a shooter in the building.
“For years we put people in lock-down and told them to sit on the floor and stay quiet,” Tustin said. “That’s all changed because of what the data shows. Staying passive is wrong.”
In a room by room analysis of the Virginia Tech shooting, researchers found that when people were passive, nearly all were killed or wounded. By contrast, in two classrooms where people took action, either by barricading the door or jumping out windows to flee, most survived.
“It comes down to three words: run, hide, fight,” Perenick said. “Evacuation is always first. If you can get out to safety, do it. If you can’t get out, then don’t be passive. Take some action.”
Over the course of the four-hour seminar, Perenick and Tustin discussed in detail best-practices for schools and businesses to use as they develop emergency plans and look for ways to reduce risks. The importance of staff training, communications, and coordination with local public safety officials was stressed.
“If you have access to the intercom system, use it. Tell people where the shooter is and that will help them decide if it’s safe to evacuate, or if they are too close and need to stay put,” Tustin said.
During interactive elements of the program, the attendees were split up into smaller groups, taken to closed rooms and coached through several scenarios of a shooter in the building. They discussed when to evacuate, and when to stay in place. They were taught how to barricade doors, whether they opened into or out of the room, and were given strategies for resisting should the shooter get through the door.
“We came here to gather information and to learn, and we did both,” said Heidi Champagne, assistant principal at the Turkey Hill Middle School in Lunenburg, Mass. “We are focused on security and want to make sure we have the proper policies and plans in place and that we train our staff appropriately. The whole idea we heard today of being assertive, and dynamic in our choices, and not just sitting passively like we were taught for years is really a new concept we are working on with staff.”
Karen Erikson, a trustee of the Winchester Community Music School, said working closely with local officials like Tustin and Perenick has been important for her school’s planning. “This was a fantastic program,” she said. “We have been working on emergency preparedness since Newtown (Connecticut), and it’s a layering process. You have to keep at it, always learning and seeing how to update and improve your plans.”
While much of the seminar focused on active shooter scenarios, Tustin and Perenick stressed that emergency preparedness and planning is important for a wide range of potential hazards. “The fact is, you are much more likely to have a fire, severe weather, or be affected by an external event, than to have an active shooter in the building,” Tustin said.
Perenick agreed, saying “the most important thing to do is to start this process, and to take it one step at a time. You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. And remember, just having a plan is not enough. You have to practice it regularly because what may seem logical on paper doesn’t always work in reality.”