Confronting active shooter

Neil Sutton
Friday December 01, 2017
Written by
In the recent months and years, there have been some shocking displays of violence as gunmen kill and injure large numbers of innocent people — often bystanders — for reasons that are sometimes frustratingly unclear.

Motives aside, the death tolls are real and the impacts long-lasting. On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed in an Orlando nightclub; on Oct. 1 this year, 58 people were killed while attending a county music festival in Las Vegas; and on Nov. 5, 26 people died in a Texas church — an event so fresh it occurred after most of the interviews for this story were conducted.

These incidents all occurred in the U.S., but Canadians are by no means exempt from their impact or from the phenomenon of active shooter itself.

Understanding Perception

Measures for what constitutes an active shooter event are not universally agreed upon. “But if you use the definition of mass shooting, the FBI defines it as four or more casualties,” says Satyamoorthy Kabilan, Director, National Security and Strategic Foresight, for the Conference Board of Canada. The Conference Board conducted a study in 2015 and issued a briefing paper (currently available as a free, downloadable pdf on their website) highlighting some of the major conclusions that can be drawn from active shooter events.

One of the major takeaways from that report is “the psychological toll taken by active shooter incidents extends far beyond the victims and first responders who are directly involved.” Even incidents that are resolved without any loss of life “will still have significant economic and psychological impacts.”

Kabilan points out that, based on a criteria of four or more casualties, recent events in Canada include the Quebec City mosque shooting of Jan. 29, 2017, when a gunman killed six people and injured 19 others.

Overall, however, there is no discernable upward trend in the number of active shooter incidents in Canada.

“When you look at the overall pattern over the last 20 or 30 years, what you’ll find is, these are little blips. There is no actual trend line to say that it’s increasing in Canada in comparison with the U.S.,” says Kabilan. “When we think about active shooter incidents in Canada, the first thing we need to realize is, we are very, very different from the U.S. We don’t have any form of sharp trend that says it is rising.”

The Conference Board of Canada’s recent white paper includes major discussion points and recommendations drawn from international active shooter incidents of note and contextualized for Canadians. Despite the recent number of high-profile incidents, particularly in the U.S., Kabilan doesn’t expect those recommendations to really change.

But what might change for Canadians is the perception of active shooter incidents, and this may be the biggest adjustment for security professionals north of the border. “These incidents are splashed all over the media,” says Kabilan, “so of course they come into our consciousness. In terms of perceptions, although I do not have the evidence, I would suspect that is higher up on people’s minds.”

Brian Claman, Director, National Security & Life Safety Services, GWL Realty Advisors Inc. is aware that the possibility of an active shooter threat is still very remote in Canada, and elsewhere for that matter, but the spectre of such an event can still have enormous consequences for security leaders.

Claman agrees with Kabilan that “the extensive news coverage gets people thinking. If people are scared, that’s enough to cause us to react.”

“Active attacker has been on the radar screen for quite some time now,” he adds. “We notice that the threat environment is evolving at a very rapid pace and we have been paying particular attention to things such as active attacker and trying to learn from the findings from the incidents that have happened in Europe and the U.S.” Claman said he’s heard more questions in the last few years than in previous about active shooter attacks and how they should or would be handled. “We in Canada are not exempt and we have to raise our game.”

That said, he’s cognizant of the fact that there are other potential emergencies that are far more likely to occur than active shooter events, like power failures or situations caused by extreme weather conditions. It becomes a careful balancing act to acknowledge and prepare for the unlikely, dire circumstances that would arise from an active shooter incident — i.e. those types of incidents that might prey on the minds of people — while still ensuring proper preparation for the less scary, yet more likely events.

Training and Preparation

Rob Shuster, vice-president of protective services and training for AFIMAC, works out of a U.S. office and offers active shooter consultation and training on both sides of the border. Actual active shooter events may be more frequent and deadly in the U.S. than Canada, but again, perception is driving increased interest everywhere.

“The problem maybe rears its ugly head more frequently in the news in the U.S., but I don’t think that the Canadian security professional or Canadian businesses have turned a blind eye to it,” he says. “I’m getting an increasing number of folks in Canada interested in me doing presentations, public speaking, as well as coming to their facilities to either train or do a vulnerability assessment and a subsequent response plan, or both.”

Similarly, the style of training doesn’t differ significantly between U.S. and Canadian clients, he says. “Frankly, I’ve done the same structure, the same type of program in both the U.S. and Canada. The frequency of the events does not have anything to do with the dynamics when the events happen. The same human dynamics are in play when you have an active shooter incident in Canada as when you have it in the States.”

Actual response plans will change depending on the type of environment, says Shuster: schools with young children will be treated very differently than college campuses, hospitals or manufacturing environments, but all will share common elements such as the involvement of local law enforcement.

At the University of British Columbia (UBC), training and awareness has been part of campus life for years. In 2013, the campus staged a “boots on the ground” active shooter exercise in co-ordination with the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP. UBC also provides detailed information about active shooter events on its website, including a quiz, FAQ page and eight-minute video.

“The likelihood you will ever encounter this type of situation is extremely remote,” states the video’s host, “so why, then, are we asking you to view this video? First, we think it could benefit you, no matter what risks you may face, because it encourages you to think through various emergency scenarios and ask yourself, what would I do in that situation?’

Danny Smutylo, Manager, Emergency Management at UBC, says the university has increased its focus on emergency training in recent years.

He says the university’s president and executive body were keen to promote awareness and training around active shooter.

Students, staff and faculty are encouraged to use the online training tools available to them. Smutylo and the school’s emergency management department will also provide in-person training sessions as well, often leading to a discussion. “For the most part, the response has been really good,” he says.

What he doesn’t want to do is traumatize people. UBC is a Canadian institution, but its inhabitants and students come from all over the world. As such, their understanding of potential violent attacks may be very different. “That’s one thing that we really try to take to heart when we do the training,” he says. “We try to preface what we do with some sensitivity.”
 
The school has engaged in other mass exercises — most recently a simulated vehicle attack and mass casualty drill with more than 200 people participating. “There’s an appetite to better understand these things,” says Smutylo.

The typical reaction to active shooter training is gratitude, says Shuster, and it can actually be a useful tool in overcoming fear.

When he hears that an employer is hesitant to pursue such training,“my response to that is this: Your people are watching the same news reports on television as everyone else is. I would imagine more than one of them have sat back and said, ‘I wonder what would happen if that happened at my office? What should I do?’ … I think it’s the employer’s responsibility to give them answers to those questions by talking about it.”

Run Hide Fight

In terms of the recommended response to an actual event, Run-Hide-Fight is still high on the list.

Shuster says it’s essentially a “conventional wisdom” view of active shooter response, but an effective one. AFIMAC training refers to it as “Get Out-Hide Out-Take Out” but it’s essentially the same methodology and one that “the scenarios have proven to be the most successful way of surviving.”

UBC has adopted “Run Hide Fight,” describing it on the UBC emergency management website as “your best strategy for responding to an active shooter situation,” and also offers online training that provides advice on everything from evacuation procedures to what to do when law enforcement arrives on the scene. Smutylo says that training module has been in place for about a year and a half.

Claman says that GWLRA revisited its active attacker protocols recently. “We wanted to make sure they were still relevant and properly communicated to all the stakeholders,” he says.

As such, GWLRA has similarly adopted Run-Hide-Fight as a recommended best practice, partly to align with Public Safety Canada’s recent campaign and documentation on the subject. A poster, co-branded by Public Safety Canada and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and available in both English and French, refers to a strategy of 1. Evacuate; 2. Hide Out; 3. Take Action.

As indicated by Shuster and others, there is no one-size-fits all approach to active shooter preparation and best practices may vary slightly from building to building and situation to situation. But by talking about the issue and offering training, professionals are more likely to equip people with knowledge that could help save lives.

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