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Surviving an Active Shooter

Planning offers the best protection

Open access facilities, including retail stores and malls, are a frequent target for active shooters. “Seventy-five percent of all active shooter incidents that have been tracked occur in places where we eat, where we shop, where we get entertained or where we go to school. The retail sector would certainly fall into that category,” said Daniel Rivera, lead for the active shooter preparedness program for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

To protect their employees and their customers, retailers must plan how they will respond to such incidents. The DHS offers assistance through its active shooter preparedness training workshops for retailers and other stakeholders and for partners such as local law enforcement agencies.

Facility managers have an important role to play in their stores’ protection. But physical security such as barriers, cameras and security guards can’t always deter active shooters. (While the Washington Navy Yard was not a retail facility, it was protected by an armed security force, magnetometers and controlled access. But a shooter still managed to bring a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun into the building.) Physical security needs to be paired with appropriate policies and procedures.

Since it’s not possible to screen or check the bags of people who are coming in to shop, store employees must serve as the first line of defense. “There are a variety of things that you could look for in terms of behavioral indicators,” Rivera said.

For example, employees might notice a co-worker displaying increasingly erratic or aggressive behavior, or hear him complain about an injustice he’s suffered at the store. They may be aware that a co-worker’s work performance has changed, or that he is distancing himself from others.

“Employees need to be observant, and they need a system of reporting that goes upwards and downwards,” Rivera said. “Managers have to be open to such communication and willing to listen to their employees. There are too many stories about employees who reported a co-worker’s suspicious behavior but managers ignored the information or did not act upon it to intervene with the employee in time.”

Plan, practice and revise

To limit casualties in an active shooter situation, retailers must have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place so that everyone in the store knows how to respond. The planning team should include representatives from operations, facilities, human resources, safety, first responders (law enforcement, fire and EMS) and the building’s landlord and neighboring tenants or businesses.

Facility managers can assist in this process by evaluating their stores from the perspective of both the active shooter trying to get in and the responders trying to get people safely out. The review of the store’s exterior should include gates, building access, security lighting, doors and windows. On the interior, facility managers should assess the physical layout of the store and designate safe refuge areas where doors and windows can be locked. Determine what access routes people can use to escape the store, remembering to include options for those with physical disabilities. Equip the facility with first aid kits and provide employees with appropriate training. Place posters with clearly marked escape routes in areas where employees can easily see them.

Emergency Action Plans should be updated whenever there are changes to the store’s physical layout or personnel. Facility managers should also prepare a go-kit with facility information to provide to first responders when they arrive on the scene.

Few retailers have developed an EAP for dealing with active shooters. Rivera said DHS holds about 35 active shooter preparedness workshops each year, with anywhere from 50 to 150 attendees. “Maybe 5 to 10 percent of them have a plan, and most of them are not really sure what their role within that plan is,” he added.

Don’t develop a plan and put it on the shelf. “We always refer to it in our workshops as a bicycle; the moment you stop pedaling, the bicycle falls down. So you have to be able to get the right people around the table, you have to plan and organize and equip your employees with what you’re trying to accomplish in the plan,” said Rivera. The plan must work during a variety of situations: during the daytime hours, at night, on weekends and on the overnight shift.

Once you have a plan, you need to train your employees. “Exercise your plan or drill certain components that you want to test,” said Rivera. “As you go through the preparedness cycle or the planning cycle and you evaluate your plan, you’ll find out that you have identified some gaps. So you keep strengthening your plan. It’s something that should be done once or twice a year at a minimum.”

During employee training, managers should stress the importance of reacting to a situation immediately. After talking with people who have survived an active shooter event, Rivera said they’ve found that most people will be in denial when they hear a gunshot and don’t act until they hear a second one. “Those who go right to run, hide or fight do extremely well. Their success is predicated on following their instinct to survive,” he said.

Retailers and mall managers should be prepared to communicate with customers if an active shooter comes into their space. “Some malls establish an active shooter warning to play over the telecom system in different languages,” said Rivera. The message should be short and to the point: “There is an active shooter in the building. We encourage you to run, hide or fight and stay protected.” Retailers also need to have a notification message that lets people know when the situation is under control.

Getting help with your plan

Ideally, every retailer in the country would be able to participate in one of DHS’s active shooter preparedness workshops. To learn if there’s one coming to your area, you can contact the DHS active shooter preparedness team at

But since many retailers don’t have the time or the budget for travel, DHS has done everything it can to bring the program to them via its Active Shooter Preparedness website (

The website offers:

  • “How to Respond” materials in a variety of forms and in several languages, including English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Punjabi.
  • An “Options for Consideration” active shooter video managers can share with their employees. It demonstrates the possible actions store staff can take if confronted with an active shooter and advises them on how to assist law enforcement officers when they arrive on the scene.
  • The “Pathway to Violence” fact sheet explains how employees can recognize the warning signs that a co-worker might be contemplating violence.
  • Under the “workshop participants” tab, there are slides and templates from the active shooter workshop to assist retailers in developing their own emergency plans.

The DHS active shooter preparedness team will soon roll out a virtual learning center. It will feature a two-hour video presentation with a security expert who can walk people through creating an EAP. Like the workshop, the video will include interviews with people who have survived these incidents as well as people who have responded to them.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also offers a free, independent-study active shooter training course on its website. (>) The one-hour course is designed to educate both managers and employees on how they can prepare for and prevent active shooter situations. l

“There are too many stories about employees who reported a coworker’s suspicious behavior, but managers ignored the information or did not act upon it to intervene with the employee in time.”

Daniel Rivera, DHS


Active Shooter Preparedness: Six Steps to Take Now

  1. Make a plan. Evaluate your facility internally and externally from the viewpoint of an active shooter trying to gain entrance and first responders trying to get everyone out safely. Designate evacuation routes and safe areas where people can shelter.

  2. Practice the plan once or twice a year to ensure everyone in the store knows how to respond.

  3. Check your plan periodically to ensure everyone listed can still play their assigned roles, and that you have backups for them when they are not available.

  4. Train employees constantly, and make sure that you are reaching all of them. If you’re planning an active shooter drill, for example, extend it from a Friday evening through Monday afternoon to make sure that you’ve covered all shifts.

  5. Reach out to local law enforcement and other first responders for assistance. They can help you develop training programs and make recommendations on how you can improve your emergency action plan. It’s also helpful to have them familiar with your store if an active shooter incident does occur there.

  6. Take advantages of the active shooter preparedness planning resources available on the DHS website:

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