Gunshot Detection Devices: The New Frontier in Security Equipment?

Sept. 16, 2019
Law enforcement and security staffs look for proper integration of technology to solve challenges

Active shooters represent a subset of a broader category of active assailants who may use other weapons such as vehicles to kill or injure their intended targets. This article focuses solely on the active shooter; an ever-increasing threat in America. This is a globally recognized problem demonstrated by warnings about gun violence in the U.S. of varying degrees of intensity from countries including Uruguay, Venezuela, Japan, Germany, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. Just recently, two mass shootings in one week left over thirty dead and 53 injured in the U.S.

Active shooters in America are not a wholly new phenomenon. From 1900 to 2010 there were 143 mass shootings (more than four victims). According to Global Research News, from 1930 to 1960 most mass shootings were familicides and felony related killings, but since 1960 most mass shootings have been in public places against unknown bystanders. Technology for specifically combatting incidents such as these has struggled to keep pace with the advancements in gun technology. Technology for detecting gunshots was not commercially available until the last decade. Solutions are now available to detect gunshots indoors and outdoors. They are designed to quickly and accurately detect gunshots, determine by device activation or triangulate the location of the active shooter, then alert responders and/or other people in the geographical area. Some outdoor detection systems are intended for law enforcement use only, while other technologies could be harnessed by private sector organizations. This article will examine the possible role that gunshot detection might play and overview potential benefits and drawbacks of the technology during an active-shooter scenario.

Making The Use Case Argument

There are potential benefits and drawbacks to the utilization of gunshot detection technology.  Organizations and municipalities need to look holistically at workplace violence and recognize that workplace violence, including active shooters, are preventable incidents.  It starts with a risk analysis of the various types of workplace violence offenders, of which there are five.  Emphasis should be placed on implementing the measures to recognize, intervene and potentially prevent an incident as the highest priority. Then working from the response side of the problem, gunshot detection technology may add enough value for the cost. Facilities that are very large and complex may be the best candidates for such a system, as in the case of the Washington Navy Yard Shooting in 2013 when the gunman was loose inside the facility for over an hour before police neutralized him. The duration of the Navy Yard incident is a bit of an aberration as it is widely held by authorities that active shooter events last on average only a few minutes; typically, eight. 

Because of the short duration of the events, this technology may not be necessary.  Additionally, other potential downsides of this technology include the inability of the systems to provide a physical description of the shooter which would aid police, no additional time saved in notifying police versus a bystander with a cell phone, and the need to integrate such systems with other mass notification technologies, which further increases cost and makes this solution unaffordable for some organizations. Detection of a shooter is also no guarantee that police will be able to access the facility, as was recently the case in the Virginia Beach shooting where provision may not have been made for emergency response access and police were delayed by locked electronic access control doors. 

On the positive side, technology has proven highly reliable at detecting gunshots. This could potentially avert an overreaction and response by outside agencies for falsely reported incidents (e.g., Naval Medical Center in San Diego or the LAX ground stop, both in 2016). We could also see a use case for this technology for organizations that operate in high-crime areas and where there is a risk of gunshots being fired in the vicinity of where employees exit and park. Utilization of outdoor gunshot detection could alert personnel and enable them to shelter in place if an incident were to happen during a shift change when a lot of people would be departing. As stated above, for large and complex facilities, this could speed police response to an incident.

Filling in the Blanks

In some instances, active shooting events should be preventable, a fact that should not be lost in any discussion about workplace violence and active shooters. For this reason, one could argue that by the time the first shot is fired, other precautionary measures may have failed. A recent USA Today article cited several incidents where the warning signals were there and missed (e.g., Sutherland Spring Church shooting, Navy Yard Shooting, Parkland, Florida school shooting, Pulse Nightclub).

Another foundational concept relevant to this discussion relates to achieving physical security success. That is “Detection, Assessment, Response and Interdiction,” which holds that in order to defeat an adversary once an attack has started, you need to be able to detect the problem (detection), validate that it is a problem (assessment), notify and deploy the responders (response) and have robust enough response to stop the crime in progress (interdiction). A failure in any one of these areas usually results in a successful criminal act or magnified negative consequences. 

So, in that context, it is easy to see how gunshot detection technology might be a key element to start the clock for the “good guys” as there is little dispute that the technology is highly reliable in accurately detecting gunshots. However, when you begin the cost-benefit analysis, you might find that there are other equally reliable detection methods in place such as bystanders with cell phones. It is also an opportune time to note that organizations that install cameras alone as their first line of defense fail to start the detection clock and often fail from an incident-prevention perspective. It could also result in a more measured response if reports of gunshots are reported by humans but not detected by the highly reliable technology. 

Studying the technology from the assessment standpoint, in very simply organized and smaller buildings (such as schools), the value of the ongoing assessment of the location of a shooter becomes more difficult to justify. Certainly, in large complex facilities, such a system could increase the speed at which responders could neutralize the threat providing that the design and implementation includes fully integrated communications with the response agencies.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an active shooter incident as a shooting in which one or more gunmen are “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”  According to the latest FBI report from April 2019, there were 27 incidents in 2018 and 30 in 2017, a slight decrease in numbers, but still a rising trend since 2014 when the bureau started designating and tracking active shootings. Sixteen of the 2018 incidents occurred in business environments, five in schools, two in health care facilities, two in open space and one on government property, the report said. In the business instances, shooters were either employees or had grievances against the company (detectable and potentially preventable).  Workplace violence is a reality in today’s environment, and management is increasingly reaching out to independent security consultants to evaluate their organizations for prevention strategies to prevent incidents and optimize response should the unthinkable happen.

The chart below summarizes the potential benefits stated by those who endorse this technology and limitations and drawbacks of gunshot detection technology:

Potential Benefits

  • Reliable detection of gunshots. People have been known to deny the sound of gunshots heard in the workplace and as a result, delayed their evacuation putting them at higher risk of injury or death.
  • Could be effective when deployed outdoors in high crime areas to reduce the risk of collateral damage of employees exiting the building into a crime in progress.
  • Where properly integrated with building systems, the activation of a gunshot detector can result in a lockdown of the facility to deter or delay entrance of the active shooter and potentially save lives.
  • Could assist police response in very large or complex facilities providing that drills have been conducted and officers are familiar with the site, or in cases where the shooting is in an outdoor area.
  • Could assist in the notification of employees and others enrolled in a mass notification system with timely warnings about an imminent threat to aid in the run, hide or fight decision.
  • The failure to trigger an alarm on a highly reliable detection system may result in a more measured police response and elimination of significant and costly business disruption.

Potential Drawbacks

·         If not properly integrated with other measures, there may be minimal value-added in terms of getting responders to the scene promptly as well as notifying persons on the site which may be unaware gunshots have been fired either due to the ambient noise levels or the sheer size of the facility.

  • Detection of the location of the shooter is no guarantee that responding personnel can get to them (witness the Virginia Beach shooting where police were denied access due to the electronic access control system).
  • In some cases, detection systems may be slower at initiating law enforcement response than a bystander calling directly to 911 to report an incident.
  • Gunshot detection systems are not capable of providing a physical description of the shooter to the 911 center and ultimately to the responding officers.
  • Cost (initial and sustaining).

Vetting the Technology

There are multiple product offerings from a variety of manufacturers, some of which are widely recognized commercial security providers and others with obvious roots in military technology development. The technology ranges from high-resolution audio equipped security cameras with specially developed analytics designed to detect and triangulate gunshots to purpose-built sensors analyzing both sound and light (muzzle flash) signatures.  An analysis of the products available on the market revealed the following:

A highly respected airport Chief of Police, with over 30 years of law enforcement experience, interviewed by the author about these products was a very enthusiastic proponent of utilizing gunshot detection equipment in airports (and other locations) with the following qualifications:

  • The proper systems are vetted and selected. False alarms during a crisis can complicate an already impossible situation as was experienced when witnesses mistook and reported a suitcase falling as gunfire, creating a serious incident at the Los Angeles airport in August of 2016.

                o    The false report caused a thirty-minute ground stop on all flights west of the Mississippi and was later attributed to a piece of metallic luggage falling                       over on the concrete which would have been ignored by a correctly installed gunshot detection system.

  • The system design can provide automatic mass notification to both offsite emergency responders, onsite security staff, and people within the affected geographical area.

               o   Cell phone notification using the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system requires FEMA approval to activate.

  •  The budget must be scrutinized to ensure that required features are included and captured in the budget.  For a medium-sized regional airport system, the shooter detection system initial equipment alone was estimated to be approximately $100,000 with installation, integration, training, additional software, and other incidentals pushing the overall estimated budget just past $500,000.

Budgetary numbers in this range might well apply to a decent-sized high school or a small corporate campus of five or fewer buildings. The technology might be unaffordable to mid to smaller sized organizations, and many school systems would not be able to afford the upfront costs, let alone the annual subscription fees. A Raleigh, NC, law enforcement and school resource officer stated his actions would not change with or without the system. As the sole responder on a high school campus, he would still follow the gunshot sounds and go in the direction from which the students are fleeing to try and neutralize the shooter. He said that he cannot wait for backup before he responds. Since shooters are typically on the move while shooting, he questions whether the system could keep up with the shooter’s location while putting out notifications. The officer did agree that the location information would be helpful to those arriving on the scene from off-campus, but for the SRO on site, his eyes and ears are his most important resources.

Assess and Decide

Gunshot detection technology certainly has promise in certain situations. It is not a prevention, but a response technology with the potential to limit injury and death only after an incident is underway. The highest and most urgent priority for any organization is to embrace a prevention posture through security risk assessment and implementing proven practices to prevent crime before it occurs. Crisis response plans and the deployment of technology such as gunshot detection are important, but not at the expense of investing in prevention measures, which would make the need for such crisis response plans and reactive technology moot. For organizations that are considering the use of such technology, ensure that multiple products are carefully analyzed in the context of your specific risk of an active shooter, and ensure that the use of any such technology will sufficiently improve the detection, assessment, response and interdiction of an active shooter to justify the cost. Consider the unique layout of your facility and other security systems that may already be in use (e.g., access control, video surveillance, mass notification capability) for optimal results.

About the authors:

Frank Pisciotta, CSC, is president of Business Protection Specialists, Inc., a nationwide independent security consulting firm focused on healthcare risk identification, regulatory compliance and security design services. Pisciotta has managed more than 4,500 security-consulting engagements in his thirty-year consulting career. He possesses a master’s degree in public administration, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and was board certified in Security Management by the American Society for Industrial Security as a Certified Protection Professional in 1994.  Pisciotta serves as the Vice-Chair on the ASIS Council for Food Defense and Agriculture Security. He can be reached at [email protected]

Patrick Wood, CPP is a senior security consultant with Business Protection Specialists, Inc.  He is an experienced electronic security technology professional with twenty-eight years providing design, project management and closeout services within the integrated electronic security industry.  Before joining BPS in 2018, Patrick served as both a senior security designer and the principal security consultant for two firms in the state of Washington.  He can be reached at [email protected].