How to Create a Strategic Plan for Active Shooter Incidents

Aug. 12, 2020
Organizations seek to minimize stress and mitigate risk as the new normal expands

With the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, the pandemic has forever changed the lives of people worldwide. The intensifying economic impacts of COVID-19 are outpacing the 2009 financial crisis with global unemployment approaching 200 million worldwide.  Security reflects society and its values; and as threats continue to evolve, security professionals continually learn, adapt and change to address those challenges. Risk assessment and emergency planning remain constant despite the changing complexion of how we work, learn, play and live.    

Organizations strive to protect their assets; employees, students, property and interests in the wake of the worldwide pandemic and social unrest, while simultaneously planning for the next phase of returning to work, school and life in general. It is yet unclear if the next phase includes a return to actual physical buildings, or most likely, a phased approach to re-opening while adjusting to a new and different paradigm with many employees working remotely and classes being delivered online via computer-based learning. These evolving paradigms of work and education are challenging traditional security thinking and protection models, not the least of which includes training and preparing for emergencies, yet the threats remain.  

Now more than ever before, people are aware of their surroundings. There is a general sense that people are now more inclined to take responsibility for their safety and becoming empowered to act. For example; nationwide, firearms dealers reported a surge in sales at the start of the pandemic (1) with no signs to indicate this trend is ending in the near future. More citizens are arming themselves and taking steps to defend themselves in light of civil unrest. A liquor store owner in Nashville who shot a shoplifter stated she was “fed up” of her store being robbed; she is 88 years old and now facing aggravated assault charges (2). Regardless of political leanings, this is just one example of numerous incidents recently where citizens are taking decisive action to protect their interests. 

Current Trends  

Remote work and distance learning -- Some major companies have recently announced their intentions for employees to permanently work from home regardless of the pandemic. The Society for Human Resources (2020) reports that work from home is the new normal as employers and workers adapt to new ways of getting work done. (3) Educational institutions at all levels are also transitioning to distance learning models in favor of traditional classroom settings, which may lend itself to greater acceptance of distance learning in general.     

Working from home and distance learning lack many aspects of adhering to a routine and compliance, which are inherent byproducts of being physically present, and rather encourage greater reliance on mindfulness, self-discipline and focus. Paul Timm, PSP; VP Facility Engineering Assoc. is a highly acclaimed physical and recognized school security expert (4); Timm notes that in reference to active shooter training, the rules have changed from shelter in place to more aggressive and proactive responses. Over the past few years and even prior to the onset of the pandemic, there has been an increasing emphasis on situational awareness and greater stress on safety.  Timm observes there is more political volatility combined with “cabin fever” as people become more fearful in rise of protests, which points to people exercising their rights and more opportunities for something bad to happen. In the workplace, the trend towards increased acceptance of training and drills is apparent, as well as in schools at all levels. This shift will most likely continue as safety and health remain at the forefront of society’s collective thinking.   

Training and drills -- An increased focus on personal safety represents a shifting mindset towards encouraging people to have a greater awareness of their surroundings and empowering them to make decisions without relying on others to lead - rather than defaulting to hide and hope for the best.  There is significant evidence to suggest that people who have not participated in realistic drills will tend to freeze and may rely on others to act, thus putting themselves and others at risk. On the other hand, conducting training and drills that require participants to actively engage; “stop and think,” are more impactful and help develop a sense of empowerment over hopefulness.  It is important to note that law enforcement and first responders train for these situations and thus should be relied upon as trusted counsel.  

Critical thinking skills translate well into preparing for active shooter incidents; training must emphasize empowering individuals to make decisions rather than relying on the traditional ‘run-hide-fight’ model. Timm is an advocate for ‘stop and think’ drills which entail conducting a simulation drill during chaotic periods of time such as the start or end of the day, lunchtime, during class change at a school when people are out in the open and not able to easily hide. “Stop and Think” exercises compel the participants to be aware of their surroundings, assess the situation, decide, and act. 

Strategic planning for violent incidents must include consideration of various delivery modalities and learning models.  Prior to tragedies such as those in Columbine, and Sandy Hook elementary school, active shooter drills in schools were non-existent.  Even in the wake of Columbine in 1999, little changed; and now holding drills in conjunction with local law enforcement and teaching children to ‘run-hide-fight’ are commonplace.  The failure to properly prepare for emergencies such as active shooters would be considered negligent at best. 

There are currently four generations actively working together in the workplace for the first time in our nation’s history. The Society for Human Resources (SHRM) reports that baby boomers are leaving the workforce at a rate of 10,000 per day, while Millennials make up approximately two-thirds of the workforce. (5)  Students at all levels are acclimated to talking about active shooter incidents and have participated in training; for some since entering school at a very young age. Generally, younger people more readily accept participating in drills as a way of life, and it could be argued they are not afraid because they have practiced and are prepared.  Conversely, the average citizen has not trained for emergencies, nor been exposed to exercises that force them into uncomfortable situations. Dr. Michael Corcoran, President of the Workthreat Group (6) notes that sadly, many companies do the bare minimum to ‘check the box’ in regards to planning for active-shooter incidents simply because it is uncomfortable and expensive to interrupt operations or hire a consultant for assistance. 

While there is growing acceptance of training and drills in schools and the workplace, and by extension the need for security in general, there is still significant improvement yet to be made. Despite the all too frequent incidents around the country and worldwide, some organizations still choose to deny the possibility of an active shooter or armed assailant attack at their place of business. Recent research suggests that law enforcement is now referring to “active killer” in an effort to change the mindset of the public to be more aware of the danger this bad actor represents.

Establishing Best Practices

Those who intend harm adapt quickly with increasing creativity to overcome preventative and protection measures.  A critical component of strategic planning relative to continuity of operations and protecting human life is effective active shooter and armed assailant training. 

Whatever label or title resonates with a respective organization, strategic planning enterprise-wide in preparation for emergencies remains constant.  Despite the obstacles given the current social conditions to conduct traditional active shooter training and drills, it is critical for organizations to not push pause on planning and preparedness on critical security measures.  Here are some best practices that could help in putting together a strategic plan.

  • Place a greater emphasis on safety and personal responsibility to encourage empowerment.
  • Capitalize on the increased acceptance of training and drills, and a heightened sense of situational awareness. 
  • Encourage critical thinking skills and active participation beginning with the planning and thorough execution of exercises. 
  • Invite participation from law enforcement, partner with neighboring businesses, and utilize realistic scenarios; remove a key player or make technology unavailable.  
  • Practice different scenarios and outcomes; conduct an exercise during periods of transition that tend to be more chaotic such as during a shift change or the prime lunch hour.
  • Maintain an appropriate emphasis on safety when conducting in-person training or drills, social distancing protocols should be followed; with the caveat that during a life-threatening incident, focusing on the immediate threat takes precedence.
  • Incorporate precautions resulting from the pandemic, such as the use of personal protective equipment into plans and training scenarios.
  • Adhere to scheduled training to keep security and safety at the forefront of everyone’s mind, despite their locations. 
  • Create realistic scenario-based tabletop exercises for delivery via various modalities; utilize group meeting technologies to engage those who are working or learning from home.  Do not allow the training to get stale or become less of a priority.  

Note: Special thanks to Dr. Michael Corcoran and Paul Timm, PSP for sharing your insights and experience. 

About the author: Linda Florence, Ph.D., CPP is a psychologist with over two decades of senior leadership experience in strategic security, violence prevention and adult education. Dr. Florence is a member of the ASIS Professional Standards Board, on the Board of Directors for the  International Foundation of Protection Officers, an ASIS Women in Security ‘Marquez’ honoree in 2018, and a past President and Chairman of the Board for the ASIS Foundation Board of Trustees.


1.     Washington Post March 22, 2020

Gun and ammunition sales rise amid pandemic fears  

2.     Fox News June 16, 2020

Nashville liquor store owner, 88 explains why she shot alleged shoplifter "I’m fed up"

3.     Society for Human Resources Management (2020)

4.     Paul Timm, PSP

VP Facility Engineering Assoc

Physical security expert

5.     Society for Human Resources Management, (2017)

6.     Michael Corcoran, Ph.D.

Founder and President, The Workthreat Group

About the Author

Linda Florence, Ph.D., CPP | Security Consultant

Linda Florence, Ph.D., CPP is a psychologist with over two decades of senior leadership experience in strategic security, violence prevention and adult education. Dr. Florence is a member of the ASIS Professional Standards Board, on the Board of Directors for the  International Foundation of Protection Officers, an ASIS Women in Security ‘Marquez’ honoree in 2018, and a past President and Chairman of the Board for the ASIS Foundation Board of Trustees.