How to Prepare for an Active-Shooter Crisis

Event professionals can’t ignore the threat, says security expert Douglas Parisi. Here’s what to tell attendees.

Helping People Escape Crisis Active Shooter

Nobody wants to think about an active-shooter crisis unfolding at their meeting — but that’s exactly what we should be doing, says Douglas Parisi, director of training at SafeDefend. Taking a minute to address evacuation procedures and crisis protocols adds a level of preparedness that could save lives.

While it’s highly unlikely that any of us will ever be in such a situation, reviewing crisis protocols should become second nature in any group setting — similar to the emergency procedures we hear before every flight, notes Parisi, a former police captain with more than 20 years of related experience. Our instinct is to freeze, but with a plan in mind we are better able to override that instinct and get to safety, he explained in a recent interview.

Video: Douglas Parisi explains how to respond to an active shooter at an event, including what should be included in a crisis-management plan (at 10:35 in the above video), the questions they should ask venue partners (11:50) and how one person taking action to stop an active shooter can give others the courage to help (25:15).

Following are highlights from our important and timely conversation.

What should meeting planners be telling attendees about how to handle an active-shooter situation? (at 1:25 in above video)
You and I both have traveled on an airplane, and the first thing they tell you is how to get off in an emergency. That doesn't cause panic or a heightened sense of anxiety for us, it just tells us, “Hey, you should have a plan on how to get out.”

One of the things they say is to check for the exits, and that the closest exit might be a few rows behind you, as opposed to the one that is 20 rows up front. What they're asking you to do is just stop for a moment and think about what you would do if you had to leave the plane in an emergency. The same could be said for a convention center or any gathering place.

Would it be problematic to say, “This is what to do in the event of a mass shooting”? (3:15)
Unfortunately, we've had eight mass murders this year — but the odds that you or I will ever be in a situation like that are extremely low. So, we shouldn't be freaked out if somebody mentions that at a convention center. At the very least, you want to point out exits to people.

It takes just a modicum of time to put that thought in their heads. If you don't plant that idea, in a crisis they're probably going to head right back to the door that they came in. That's probably the front entrance, which in the most likely scenario is the least safe direction. That’s what we've seen in a lot of these situations: People run past fire exits, and then head straight back towards the front door.

Would you recommend telling people where to gather outside the facility in an emergency? (5:55)
Yes, that's another thing people need to be reminded of: In a crisis, you don't want to go to your car, you want to leave on foot. You don’t want to be trying to drive out of there when all the law enforcement and emergency vehicles are trying to drive in there.

What should happen in the three minutes or so that it will take law enforcement to arrive? (19:45)
The idea is that you want to get away from the shooter as best you can. The first thing you're going to do is get down. That’s human nature. Our instinct is going to be to get low to the ground and to be protected. That's a good thing, but you need to have a plan in your mind already to mentally override yourself, and to start moving. You can't just hope that the person doesn't come near you, you've got to move away from them.

Once you get down, your mind is going to start processing what’s happening and what you’re hearing. If it’s gunshots, you’ll be able to figure out which direction they're coming from. Now you need to start moving in the opposite direction. You might be crawling or ducking low or just all-out running, depending on what's available to you. But you need to get away from it, not just duck under a table. Hiding isn't an option.

Our kids are told to go into the classroom closet in an active shooter drill. Isn’t that hiding? (20:30)
That's not what we really mean by “hide.” We don’t want you to get under a skirted table; we want you to get on the other side of a barricade, which can be some sort of door or wall. Get into a bathroom or an office where you can try to prevent them from getting in. If it locks, all the better.

When I take my kids to large sporting events, we talk about how close we are to the main floor, or to the locker room entrances, because we know there’s an exit to the locker rooms. We look for other ways off the floor besides trying to run back up the stairs to get out of there. You look for janitorial closets, or things like concession stands. A lot of concession stands have offices or storage areas behind them. Those are the types of things you would look for: anything that you could use to barricade yourself or to hide.

Do most people tend to freeze rather than move in an active-shooter situation? (22:30)
Many do, and you don’t want to be one of those deer-in-the-headlights people who just hopes that they don't come near you. Unfortunately, in the in the recent shooting in Boulder, Colo., several people in the grocery store did exactly that. They just got down and never moved. And they were found. That's what we want to avoid.

How can we encourage people to react more logically in a crisis? (23:45)
It takes critical thinking, but if you've already had a plan put in your head, all you have to do is initiate the plan. The people who don't know what to do are the people who haven't even ever considered something like this happening.

Have you ever heard someone say that their life flashed before their eyes? In your mind, if you haven't prepared for a situation, your mind is literally looking through the litany of life experiences you've had, and it's running through and reviewing everything you've ever done, looking for something that will help you in this situation right here. That’s why you never hear that from police officers or firefighters or military people because they know how to respond. They're not saying my life flashed before my mind, they're saying my training kicked in, and I did this and this and this.

Should it become second nature in daily life to visualize an escape plan? (24:45)
That’s where we need to get to. It’s extremely rare and very improbable that you’ll be in this kind of situation, but just give yourself 5 or 10 seconds to think about it when you go to any facility. Look around and say, “OK, if I need to get out, I'm going to head over to that exit, and I see that bathroom over there and there's a closet over there.” What we need people to do is consider the possibility, and then you're halfway to preparedness.