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Warning of Workplace Violence

​THE SECURITY TEAM at a large communications manufacturing firm routinely studied cases of workplace violence reported through the public domain. In this research, the team noticed several trends. First, when robbery wasn’t the motivating factor, most of the violent acts committed at privately held or publicly traded companies were perpetrated by current or former employees. Security also found that companies did not appear to have sufficient systems in place to warn individuals who were in imminent danger. In some cases, companies or universities sent out warning messages to employees or students via their mass notification systems but by the time those messages were delivered, the horrific incident was over. Because someone had to call security or law enforcement to report the violence before the warning system could be activated, precious time was lost.

In the few cases when potential targets could be warned earlier, outcomes were better. For example, in September 2010, an employee followed a shooter into a Kraft Foods facility in Philadelphia. The employee contacted the police by cell phone and kept them notified of the shooter’s whereabouts while simultaneously warning coworkers of the impending threat. In that case, two Kraft employees were killed and a third critically wounded. However, many employees who were in the shooter’s path escaped because they had been warned.

Based on this research, the security team reviewed its company’s own response protocols, analyzing the systems in place to notify employees of the presence of an active shooter. Security found that it needed a better solution. The team devised a program that includes pull stations, voice notification, and employee training.

System Framework

The security team met with major security technology vendors and integrators in search of an established imminent-threat notification system but was unable to find any product or consistent process, protocol, or standard that addressed this vulnerability. There were public address and mass notification systems on the market but those systems required employees to take a number of steps or put themselves in harm’s way to launch the systems—something the team was trying to avoid.

Another problem was that some systems would perform one function but not another. For instance, the mass notification systems would send a warning message to cell phones or other communication devices but would not deliver an audible warning to those individuals who did not have access to those devices.

Based on this information, the team crafted a framework for an imminent-threat notification system. The system had to be simple for any employee to operate and launch. It also had to give an audible message immediately upon activation, and that message had to be clear and consistent. Moreover, the team wanted the system to trigger an alarm at the company’s security operations center as well as be scalable for its small and large facilities. Cost effectiveness was another factor.

Based on these core requirements, the team believed that there was an opportunity to blend existing off-the-shelf fire-notification systems with a concept similar to fire pull stations. This could be done affordably and serve the company’s needs without creating a dangerous situation for employees who were either seeking cover or trying to evacuate the facility during an incident.

Choosing a System

Because the company didn’t have a contract with a national fire-protection-system integrator, security decided to distribute the initial projects between the company’s national security-technology integrator, ADT; general contractors; and other fire-and-security system integrators so that the company could assess a variety of products and ensure the most competitive pricing for the systems.

The security team chose fire-protection software and hardware as the foundation of the system. The value of using a fire-protection system was that it could be modified to provide a customized message. The only caveat was that the fire system needed to be able to accommodate the various notification components.

The fire-notification software was tied to the company’s base fire system alarm system. The company installed a network card so that the system alarm panels could communicate with the security operations center over the Internet. An interface module was also installed so that the operations center could dial into the site system and make a broadcast or launch the system if necessary.

ADT facilitated the purchase of pull stations that look exactly like fire pull stations except that they are blue and are embossed with the word “security.” Pulling the stations transmits an alarm to the security center and triggers a customized, audible message, “This is a security emergency. Take cover or evacuate the building when safe to do so.” This message repeats three times.


The security department formed a cross-functional team with company representatives from facilities management, real estate, e-Business, environmental safety and health, and risk management to determine where the new system would be installed. Because the company’s facilities vary in size and are scattered across a wide geographical area, the cross-functional team needed to decide which buildings would initially have notification systems installed. The team reached consensus on the need to have notification systems in facilities where line of sight or audible warnings could not be communicated from one employee to another, such as facilities where most employees worked in cubicles, for example. In 2011, the company installed the first imminent threat notification systems in facilities in Melbourne, Florida; Kent, Washington; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The security pull stations were installed adjacent to and at the same height as the standard fire pull stations, which were located at all egress points and in major hallway intersections that led to those egress points. Pull station locations made them clearly visible to employees from a number of vantage points within the facility, and it would be easy for anyone in an emergency to safely activate one of the alarms as they evacuated the facility or ran along a hallway to seek cover in an office.

Once the system was installed, it was thoroughly tested to ensure that the pull stations triggered the notification message and also sent an alarm to the security operations center at corporate headquarters in Cedar Rapids. This was a critical step. It ensured that there was someone not directly affected by the event who could make contact with emergency services personnel, make broader notifications through the company’s mass notification system, and begin marshaling resources to respond to the site. Personnel at the security operations center are also able to remotely view surveillance cameras for each facility and can provide real-time intelligence to emergency responders or company personnel.


The cost of installing the systems ranged between $1.60 and $1.70 per square foot. Based on the company’s experience with fire pull stations, it anticipates virtually no maintenance costs with the system and the shelf life should be in excess of 10 to 15 years.

Similar to other security technology upgrades, a multiyear plan will be developed to install imminent-threat-notification systems at other company facilities to ensure that the investment of capital funds is managed appropriately and based on priority relative to other security projects and business necessity.

To further enhance the system, the company is in the process of strategically placing panic buttons at high-risk locations such as administrative workstations adjacent to executive offices.


Employee training was also an important element in the system rollout and was coordinated with the company’s environmental safety and health team. The security department provided initial training on the new system to the sites where they were installed. Security instructors trained supervisors and then posted fliers around the facilities to explain what the new blue security pull stations were all about. The supervisors were then responsible for explaining the system to their employees. The company already had existing training on workplace-violence awareness and prevention. The organization is integrating the imminent-threat system into the existing instructor-led and computer-based training this fiscal year.

Among the most critical points that the training is intended to convey is when to activate the system and when not to activate it. The training and fliers all explain that the pull stations are for security emergencies only. They are not to be used for general security complaints, such as parking problems or thefts.

Even though workplace violence events are rare, they are traumatic, and the prospect of having that type of experience creates fear and uncertainty in the minds of employees. The installation of an imminent-threat system that can reduce the threat helps to alleviate that fear. After the new system was installed, employees frequently reported that they were comforted by the fact that the company was concerned for their safety.

Michael J. Sullivan is corporate security director for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.