PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Think about your workplace for a moment. Whether it’s an office, factory, hospital, store, whatever — how much thought do you suppose your employer has given to your safety in the event of a crisis?
Let’s assume your workplace has, at a minimum, exit signs. Hopefully there are also smoke alarms, if not sprinklers and/or fire extinguishers. Maybe you even have the occasional fire drill.
But what about a drill to prepare for an armed intruder?
The idea’s become more popular, especially after the highly-publicized workplace shootings at an office in San Bernardino, California, in 2015 and at the U.S. Washington Navy Yard in 2013.
Could any of those victims have been spared had their employers better prepared them?
“It’s better to have a plan and not need it than to need it and not have it,” says Terrence Brown, a former Pittsburgh police officer and military security specialist.
Brown, through his firm Safety & Security Consultants, now instructs employees in various settings how to boost their chances of surviving workplace violence.
The nonprofit Pittsburgh Action Against Rape is among his clients. Brown took one look at its South Side offices and recommended immediate changes, including an eye-level camera in the entry so the receptionist, in a newly-fortified enclosure, can verify who’s there before allowing entry.
The receptionist can also instantly alert the entire office of danger, thanks to a new public address system.
Additionally, Brown recommended secured, employee-only access to stairwells – so if an intruder were to gain entry, they would not be able to move between floors.
Then, there is training day. During an hours-long session, Brown instructs employees how to respond to danger.
“If you don’t have a plan, then you have chaos,” Brown says.
Videos produced by the Department of Homeland Security, like those posted on the City of Pittsburgh’s website, outline a three-step approach: Run-Hide-Fight. Getting out of the building is always the first priority, the DHS advises.
“If you can get out, do. Always try and escape or evacuate, even when others insist on staying,” says this government video.
But Brown says, not so fast.
“Most people think, I’m going go to the closest exit. Well, we’ve learned from Columbine and other incidents – where there has been more than one shooter – that there might be more than one person. So you could be [advising people] to evacuate into harm’s way,” he says.
Case in point: Jonesboro, Arkansas, 1998. One student pulled the fire alarm then ran outside to join his friend, and together, they opened fire on students and teachers rushing out of the building.
“So what we teach people is to shelter in place,” says Brown. “We identify safe rooms throughout the building for them to get staff to, quickly, just like a fire drill.”
In each pre-identified safe room, a “lockdown kit” contains instructions and reminders.
While someone might move heavy items to block the door, someone else could be placing a placard from the lockdown kit in the window to inform police of their status. Green means we’re locked down, but don’t feel directly threatened. Yellow means danger appears to be nearby, but not imminent. And red means someone is trying to get into our room right now.
“And all this can be done without having to say a word, yelling out your window, or drawing more attention to yourself,” says Brown.
Only if employees’ safe room is being breached do experts recommend taking on the attacker, by using anything available as a weapon, such as a fire extinguisher or scissors.
And when an event is over, under Brown’s training, no one comes out of hiding without exchanging pre-arranged passwords with the police. They’re in the lockdown kit – and employees can share the codes with police when first calling or texting 911.
If it all seems a little dramatic, well, it did to the employees at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, too.
“At first they were a little taken aback,” confirms PAAR executive director Alison Hall.
But now, thanks to the physical upgrades, the training, and periodic drills, Hall says PAAR has gone from zero to 10 in terms of security and preparedness. She says she can’t imagine why any other employer wouldn’t want to do the same.
“I mean, what price do you put on a staff member, or anybody that comes into your building for that matter?” she said.
The Pittsburgh Police Bureau has offered its own version of active shooter training for employees at locations including the City-County Building, Phipps Conservatory and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.
Officer Jim Sippey, of the bureau’s training academy, says the city doesn’t have the resources to offer the training on a widespread basis, but encourages more employers to prepare workers for emergencies. Active shooter drills, he says, should be as commonplace as fire drills.