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When Simulation Means Survival

​Active shooter simulation exercises are undoubtedly the most effective way to prepare for a real-life scenario. These scenarios mimic the stress and chaos of an actual event and reinforce the principles of survival taught in active shooter training programs. 

But in recent years, some companies have taken that idea to the extreme, conducting surprise active shooter drills on unsuspecting employees, students, and teachers. 

Michelle Meeker, an employee at a Colorado nursing home, filed a federal lawsuit against a local law enforcement officer and her workplace in July 2014 for being taken hostage during one such drill. Meeker had no idea it was a simulation, according to The Wall Street Journal, and tearfully begged for her life as the “gunman” forced her into an empty room. She sued for damages after being so traumatized from the event that she quit her job. 

Similarly, an Oregon teacher filed suit against her workplace after a man dressed in a black hoodie and goggles burst into her classroom and brandished a gun loaded with blanks, then pulled the trigger. “You’re dead,” the gunman said to her, and walked away. The teacher believed she might have really been shot and was going to die, reported in April 2015. 

At a middle school in Winter Haven, Florida, teachers and students alike were terrified when two armed police officers swept through classrooms with weapons drawn in November 2014. Parents were outraged, the principal was suspended, and the school resource officer reassigned in the aftermath, according to The Washington Post. 

And these aren’t just recent phenomena. Security Management has reported on these types of incidents for at least 20 years.

Such training methods cause unnecessary panic and trauma. While the simulations themselves are a critical part of any effective active shooter training program, these kneejerk reactions to the proliferation of mass shootings accomplish nothing, as the focus in the aftermath is on people’s confusion and anger. Rather, the most effective way to prepare for a potential active shooter event is to combine announced simulated exercises with training materials that constantly reinforce the principles of the program. 

The chief goals of these programs are to eliminate the threat and to teach victims to survive. However, as an attack is taking place, no training will completely ensure the safety of those involved or guarantee that the shooter will be taken down. 

The human factor is unpredictable—but with proper training and repetition, an effective response will become ingrained in the actions of employees. Certain movements will become a part of one’s muscle memory, thus aiding the individual during an actual shooter event. The benefits of such programs can aid participants in a number of real-life emergencies, not just active shooter situations. 

Program components. An active shooter scenario will put any crisis plan to the test, and its success or failure rests in how well and how often people are trained to respond to an incident. Conducting a simulated exercise that mimics an active shooter event is the best way to acclimate employees to the factors involved in these crises. 

Hiring specialized companies that facilitate training and simulation can help organizations close  the gaps that they may not have otherwise noticed. These firms bring with them both expertise and experience that businesses lack.  

To develop effective response tactics, security personnel should understand what environmental and human factors typically occur during a shooting, which they can then simulate in training exercises. Loud noises—including gunshots, screams, breaking glass, alarms, and public address announcements—are to be expected. Consulting companies can provide such noises over speakers during the simulations to heighten the stress and reality of the scenario. The physical environment will be in disarray as high concentrations of people flock to exits or seek cover. There is also the possibility of visual trauma, including seeing the shooter as well as wounded or deceased victims.

The duration of the event should be considered when conducting training. While the length of the active shooter event may last anywhere from minutes to hours, police response and investigation may require witnesses and victims to be involved for up to several hours. 

Psychological stress is also inevita­ble. Each person will process the shooting in different ways, and the nervous system response will kick in and possibly override any training received. Similarly, physical stresses may be imposed upon the body, including having to run, navigate stairs, lift or push heavy items, or possibly carry a wounded victim to safety. 

To ilustrate this, active shooter training programs in corporate, educational, and religious settings often include a 150-pound dummy that trainees practice dragging to experience the unaccustomed physical exertion. 

Given the various scenarios that have occurred in real-life active shooter situations, simulations should vary so that participants can’t anticipate the gunman’s actions. Having him enter from different points and take various routes through the facility will keep the trainings fresh. 

The drills can be conducted as often as quarterly or as infrequently as once a year, depending on the size and capabilities of the company. Fire, police, and EMS personnel should be involved in at least one training per year. Tabletop exercises among key staff are also a good option to refresh critical decision making skills. 

These simulations should be supplemented with training materials that reinforce the principles practiced during simulation. Reminders about the importance of awareness and preparedness can be placed in company newsletters or on websites. Classroom trainings to introduce basic concepts that will be practiced during the programs are encouraged, but they need not be repeated as often as the training scenarios. 

The same training and preparedness principles deployed by these programs apply to other emergencies, like severe weather or medical events. During an earthquake, for example, similar physical stressors and environmental conditions are present, and there can be panic, confusion, and communication issues. Active shooter programs will apply and reinforce responses to a range of possible scenarios. 

A community center in the California Bay Area recently set up an effective active shooter program. The center’s campus includes about five buildings and a school. The center formed a crisis response team from its core employees, and everyone on the team has a distinct role in the event of an active shooter or any emergency, including a severe weather event or medical crisis. The team rotates every few months so each person receives training for every role. 

As part of the active shooter training, the center purchased communication equipment, including radios, to deploy in case cellular towers go down. The company also established a command post during simulation trainings where team members could wait for police response. Redundancy is built into the roles so that if one person falls victim to the active shooter or emergency event, someone can step in and fulfill that person’s response protocols.  

Popular protocols. One popular active shooter response protocol is the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s “Run, Hide, Fight” program. It was designed as a simple means for people to recall what to do during an event in just three verbs, but this approach may oversimplify the human response mechanism.

Running at the first sign of gunfire may not always be the best option depending on where the shooter is, how far one has to go to reach safety, and whether there are small children in tow, for example. To hide or shelter in place can be a lifesaving response, provided that the room can be locked and barri­caded with heavy furniture to offer cover from potential gunfire. 

Hiding below a desk or on the floor does not guarantee cover if the shooter breaches the door. Hiding adjacent to a door, not in front of it, is recommended. This way, if a responder needs to engage the shooter in a fight by positioning himself or herself near the door, the shooter can be taken by surprise. If the door isn’t locked or barricaded well and the shooter comes in, a responder may have to improvise and find something to throw at the shooter.

It’s possible that there isn’t sufficient cover in a room. Such was the case in the mass shooting at a health department in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015 that left 14 people dead. Survivors reported that they deployed the skills they had learned earlier in an active shooter training course by hiding behind tables and chairs, but the large room was mostly open space without much cover. In these scenarios, attempting to stay outside of the line of sight, in the peripheral vision of the shooter, is the best cover. 

To fight back against the shooter, responders must be able to identify and take advantage of improvised weapons in their environment and use them as the shooter enters the room. If not practiced previously in a live realistic setting, the fight phase can end horribly for the responder. Expecting someone to fight back against an armed assailant if they have never practiced that before is unreasonable. 

Due to these concerns, as well as the unpredictable nature of active shooter events, organizations implementing “Run, Hide, Fight” should carefully consider supplementing it with extensive training tactics in their active shooter programs. 

Program costs. Several firms offer active shooter response programs and training for organizations. The cost of active shooter programs will vary based on factors such as the number of parti­cipants, number of buildings on the campus, and number of drills coordinated with first responders. 

A flat fee of $5,000 for a small organization may cover a day’s training plus educational materials, such as posters, booklets, online tools, and assessments. Offering ongoing training as part of an onboarding hiring process will incur recurring fees but will help the organization be better prepared.

Some programs offer to certify people as active shooter response instructors for $500 and more. There are other providers that offer armed response training for the cost of $1,500 per person. 

The steps outlined in this article will help an organization set the groundwork for establishing an effective active shooter response program. Companies should tailor the program to their individual needs and ensure that all employees are trained on proper protocols. 

If a thorough risk assessment is completed, incident response plans are put in place, and trainings and simulations are carried out on a regular basis, the organization’s efforts may ultimately save lives. 


Greg Schneider, CPP, is president of Battle Tested Solutions, an organization providing security consulting, intelligence management, and tactical response training for clients. His career of more than 20 years includes experience in law enforcement, military, intelligence, and security organizations. He is a member of the ASIS Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council and a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. ​