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Planning for the unthinkable

If your workplace doesn’t have a plan for how to respond to an active shooter, it’s time to make one.

posted April 21, 2016

John Patterson was a police officer with the Springfield Police Department on May 21, 1998, the day Kip Kinkel killed two students and wounded 25 others at Thurston High School. The 15-year-old had also killed his parents the day before.

"You learn a lot after the fact," said Patterson, now a SAIF investigator in Eugene. "We had to figure out what works and what doesn't work. The psychological and emotional aftermath at Thurston—seeing people haunted by guilt, for example—was a strong incentive. I am committed to preparing people for such an event."

What would you do?

Make a plan."If you don't already have a plan for what to do in the event of an active shooter in your workplace, it's probably time to make one, even if you think it could never happen," said Patterson, who has done trainings for SAIF on what to do in case of an active shooter. "Businesses are the number one location for these events—not schools, not military bases."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 46 percent of active shooter incidents occurred in areas of commerce, 24 percent in educational environments, and 10 percent in government properties.

"For many businesses, the only plan is to call 911," said Ed Hoeffliger, senior safety management consultant in SAIF's Portland office. "Although a 911 call must happen, the plan should also deal with what to do until help arrives and what to do afterwards. Understand that it will take at least five minutes for police to arrive."

Get employees involved

Your employees need to be part of the discussion so that they know their options. No one can predict how he or she will react in a given situation; it's up to each individual to decide how to respond. Participating in the planning process helps empower employees to make quick decisions should the need arise.

Make employees part of the discussion.At a minimum, your plan should include:

  • A security assessment. If necessary, consider making changes to your work environment, including protective glass, card readers or buzz-through doors, and electronic alert systems.
  • A communication plan. How will you alert employees if a shooter has entered your business? How can employees communicate with you?
  • An incident plan. What actions should employees take during an incident? What are your best options for escape?
  • Training and drills
  • Post-incident recovery

Run. Hide. Fight.Federal, state, and local law enforcement also should be included in developing your plan. The Department of Homeland Security has excellent resources that can guide you in developing a plan, training your staff, and knowing how to respond.

You'll find these resources and more on the violence in the workplace topic page of our safety and health site.

Run, hide, fight

The most basic incident plan is made up of three components: run, hide, and fight. In most cases, running is the safest option. Make sure your employees know all possible evacuation routes. Seconds count, and delays could make escape impossible.

If it is impossible to run, plan for where you might hide. "The best hiding places are windowless rooms with doors you can lock or block with heavy furniture," said Hoeffliger.

Fighting is absolutely the last resort when your life is in imminent danger. Talk about what you could use to defend yourself or disable a shooter, if necessary. But remember, confronting an active shooter should never be a requirement of anyone's job, with the exception of law enforcement.


To learn more, watch the video Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an active shooter event. Be aware that the video includes dramatizations that some might find disturbing.

Recognize the signs

Active shooters may be current or former employees. Alert your Human Resources Department if you believe an employee exhibits potentially violent behavior. Indicators may include:

  • Increased use of alcohol and illegal drugs

    Recognize the signs.

  • Unexplained increase in absenteeism

  • Vague physical complaints
  • Depression or withdrawal
  • Increased severe mood swings and noticeably unstable or emotional responses
  • Increased talk about problems at home
  • Increase in unsolicited comments about violence and weapons

If you don't already have an employee assistance program, consider implementing one and actively promoting it to your employees.

Start the conversation now

Talking about the potential for violence in the workplace isn't easy. Nobody wants to think that the worst could happen. The best thing you can do is make sure your employees are prepared to respond.

"When an incident happens, there is a wave of interest in active shooter training," said SAIF's Ed Hoeffliger, "but a few weeks later, the wave passes. We need to recognize that the threat is still there, and we need to have a plan."