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“Code Blue:” Active Shooters and What We All Need to Know.

Posted 6/29/2015

What do we know about “active shooter” incidents? Who commits them? And why? What are the facts about these incidents?  What can we do about them at our utility? Answers to these questions and more are covered in this article on “Code blue,” active shooters and what we need to know.

A recent study done for the FBI in 2014 looked at active shooter incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2013. The study found that in that 13 year period there were 160 active shooter incidents, incidents that occurred in small and large towns, in urban and rural areas, and in 40 of 50 states as well as in the District of Columbia. The study did not focus on the motivation of the shooters, but did identify some shooter characteristics. In all but 2 of the incidents, the shooter chose to act alone. Only 6 female shooters were identified. School shooters tended to be students or former students of the school they chose to attack. Victims were young and old, male and female, family members and strangers, people of all races, cultures, and religions.The study’s findings show that, while still relatively rare, the frequency of active shooter events in the USA is clearly on the rise. During the first 7 years included in the study, an average of 6.4 incidents occurred annually. In the last 7 years of the study, that average increased to 16.4 incidents annually. The peak year was 2010, with 26 separate incidents.


While the reported total of 1,043  casualties (486 killed, 557 wounded) that occurred during the incidents included in this study is startling, it is noteworthy that the typical incident involved just a few victims; the median number of individuals killed in each incident was 2, and the median number of individuals wounded in each incident was also 2. (If a shooter died as a result of the incident, that individual was not included in the casualty totals.) Even in the most deadly year (2012, with 21 incidents had the highest casualty totals, 90 killed, 118 wounded, a total of 208 victims) where the averages were 4.2 killed and 5.6 injured, the numbers are skewed by three infamous high casualty incidents (the Sandy Hook school shootings, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shootings and the Aurora, CO theater shootings) with 45 killed and 64 wounded in just those three cases.

Perhaps this increase, coupled with the extensive media coverage of several of these incidents, has played a role in the level of interest expressed by a number of utility safety people in having a “Code Blue” plan, a formal plan to handle an active shooter situation. While the chances of any particular company experiencing an “active shooter” event are small, the potential exists. One fact of particular interest to members of this program is the fact that only one “active shooter” incident took place at a utility during the 13 years studied. The case involved Southern California Edison. Quoting from the report, “On December 16, 2011, at 1:30 p.m., Andre Turner, 51, armed with a handgun, began shooting his at his co-workers in a Southern California Edison corporate office building in Irwindale, California. Turner had just been told he would not receive a Christmas bonus and might be laid off. Two people were killed; two were wounded. The shooter committed suicide before police arrived.” 

But even one case is one too many. As a result, developing a plan to respond to this type of situation is clearly of interest to a number of our clients, and may well be worth developing regardless of the odds, to reassure staff, to cover all the bases, and to have available in the unlikely event of such an event. 

As anyone who has tried to develop this type of plan will tell you, it is not easy. Elements of the plan can be challenging to define, very much affected by the nature of the building(s) involved as well as by surrounding land topography, and require careful training for all affected staff members. Research will quickly reveal that as a result of these challenges, most official advice is fairly generic, even mundane. Various governmental agencies offer response plans, including Homeland Security. The FBI advises people to “run, hide, and fight,” which is easy to remember, but is hardly a detailed “code blue” response plan. 

To the best of my knowledge, very few utilities in our program have managed to complete a detailed plan. One that has done so is Vermont Electric Cooperative, and many of the elements discussed in the article are found in their plan as well, but I want to emphasize the fact that your plan will have to be developed by you, “on the ground,” taking into account your site specific issues.  

Robbery Issues

  1. Train the entire staff to take daily precautions to prevent break-ins and robberies. Prevention steps should include: checking the integrity of security equipment (fences, doors, windows, locks, cameras, alarm systems, panic buttons) daily, maintaining the confidentiality of cash amounts and security procedures used in the utility, being alert for suspicious persons or vehicles on or near the premises, and reporting any suspicious activity to a designated person. Of course, should it be clear that a threat is highly probable, no one should hesitate to call local law enforcement for help.

  2. If the event of an actual robbery, whether or not a weapon is displayed, all employees should: remain calm, avoid any action that might provoke the robber to act violently, comply with any of the robber’s instructions even if it appears unlikely that employees could be harmed, activate a silent alarm or panic button as soon as it can be done without alerting the robber. Always remember that the money at risk is not worth the cost of a life. Not ever!

  3. Once the robber has left the scene, verify that no employees have been injured, or call for emergency medical care if needed. Then immediately call law enforcement, close and secure the office until they arrive and avoid touching any surfaces, especially door knobs or push bars, that could bear fingerprints or other physical evidence, and secure without further contact any material the robber may have left behind, such as a written note demanding money. All eyewitnesses should immediately write down what they remember of the event, especially noting the physical description of the robber before discussing events with other witnesses.

Before going any further, it is important to draw a clear distinction between active shooter, “code blue” situations and other potentially violent disruptions, such as those posed by upset or hostile members as well as robbery attempts. The latter are completely different situations, each of which requires its own plan and may, or may not, include a display or threat of weapons. Active shooter situations, by definition, always involve the use of weapons.

The agreed-upon definition of an “active shooter” by US government agencies (including the White House, US Department of Justice/FBI, US Department of Education, and US Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency ) is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”  The DHS goes on to add that “Active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims. Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Typically, the immediate deployment of law enforcement is required to stop the shooting and mitigate harm to victims. Because active shooter situations are often over within 10 to 15 minutes, before law enforcement arrives on the scene, individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter situation.” 

Wow, it’s going to be a challenge to pull together a plan on how to handle that. But let’s try, while remembering that this advice is general in nature, and far from exhaustive. Some utilities have a single office up on a hill, others have multiple locations in business districts, rural areas, or on the outskirts of small communities. There is no “one size fits all” plan to address this type of threat, and only you know your buildings, your communities, and your staffers. We can offer a generic “skeleton” but it is up to up to you to flesh it out. Now, with all of those caveats, here is our best advice on how to create and implement a “code blue” or active shooter response plan. 

Start by selecting a small group of employees with the needed expertise and vision to contribute to the plan. As you select them, consider the scope of the task and make sure to include your customer service supervisor (responsible for initial visitor contact in the lobby), your safety officer, your facility supervisor, and any others you may need. This group will be responsible for developing the initial plan and then obtaining additional resources, including input from others, and finally getting the plan approved internally. 

Next, break the problem down into constituent element categories, such as identification/immediate response, communication, lock-down, escape, training, review, and recovery. Each topic is complicated in itself, and will require careful identification, planning, training, and regular review with all staff once the plan is completed. Details matter. Let’s look at some of these elements individually. 

Identification. Determine the most likely access point, probably the main public entrance to the lobby, but don’t forget other possibilities such as the meeting room entrance, any unlocked rear or side entrances, service and warehouse entrances. Don’t forget that a door that is locked but used by employees can be an access point. It is easy to imagine someone waiting outside a commonly used side exit for an opportunity to burst in as an employee leaves, especially if the door is solid and unmonitored by real time video cameras. Identify the people most likely to be the first to encounter the intruder, those who will be your first line of defense in the effort to spot an intruder. They have to be trained to observe, notice, and quickly react to any shooter threat. 

Communication. You will rely on the front line, the cashiers and receptionists, to alert the rest of the staff, via silent alarm if available or general page if not. A code phrase may be needed to buy a bit of time. But everyone needs to be alert, trained to ID intruder/active shooter situations, and have a way to communicate in the event they are the first to see the problem. A central station alarm to alert local law enforcement may be indicated. Anyone who is aware of the incident and not in immediate danger should call the emergency number or 911.

Lock down. Access through internal doors, corridors, stairwells, and outside entrances should be controlled. If you already have an automatic lock system limiting inside access you are ahead of the game, in particular if it is always active. Remember, however, that glass doors will not likely deter an armed and determined individual. If you have to stay in the building, get into an office, lock the door, turn out the lights, and hide behind furniture out of sight. Silence your cell phone if it is with you. Remain still until someone signals all clear.  

Escape. Escape routes should be identified, including the two nearest exits from every location. If the exit route is exposed to an area accessible to the shooter a plan to secure the door and hide in place will be needed. The same issue applies to anyone who should be in the hallway at the time of an incident. Exterior escape routes must be established, depending on the situation at the site. Routes used should not be in view of areas the shooter might have access to. Workers should be warned not to flee toward their vehicles in the parking area as this is something a shooter might easily anticipate. Try to encourage others to flee using safe routes, but don’t wait to see if they do so. Leave your belongings, they are not worth dying for. If you encounter officers make sure they can see your hands.Yell, “Hostage” to identify yourself. Do not reach for any ID badges in pockets or purses, this movement can be misinterpreted by anxious officers. 

Training. Everyone must be taught not to run to the lobby! This is a key reason why a “code blue” plan has to be triggered by a unique signal, so as not to be confused with other emergency situations when you want staff to assemble. Escape routes need to be reviewed, used, and practiced until they are automatic. If you need them, you won’t have time to think about it. If you are not able to escape or hide, prepare to fight. Everyone needs to know that this is a life or death situation. Be prepared to rush the shooter, and to attack with anything available - even a pencil can be deadly - but do not hesitate or hold back once this is the only remaining option. Commit and act. You can regret it later, but only if you succeed! 

Review. Simply creating, sharing, and reading a plan will not be effective unless it is reinforced by regular reviews and practice drills. “Code blue” drills need to be part of the regular training routine. Do not worry about making employees fearful by bringing this up. Anyone who is going to be fearful is already worried; your having a plan will be reassuring to them. Concentrate instead on the “heroes” among your group. Make certain that they understand the plan, their role, and the risk they run if they put themselves unnecessarily at risk. 

Recovery. A comprehensive plan should include post-incident actions. A complete telephone list of emergency contacts should be created. Key contacts and backups should be determined now, not in the event of a problem. Select a primary and secondary law enforcement contact to work with their liaison officer to get back into the building, to ensure that critical functions continue to keep the power flowing. Decide who will be the spokesperson for the media, and where and how to conduct any briefings or interviews. Make sure to choose someone who will remain calm, while providing only appropriate information to the media and public. Work with your EAP to have a quick response team available for employees who need their expertise. Set up an alternative site location with multiple telephones for family members to call for information. Publicize the number to call for information on relatives, but be sure to validate their identities if you don’t know them personally. 

This is getting rather long, but it’s a tough topic. As you see, I have not covered everything and there is plenty of work for you to do if you are going to have a well conceived, comprehensive plan for responding to an active shooter incident. Let’s end this with some additional facts from the FBI study. 

The FBI study categorized the sites of shootings. The “commerce” category was split into 3 groups: malls, businesses usually open to pedestrian traffic, and businesses not usually open to pedestrian traffic. Of the total of 73 incidents in this group, 6 were in malls, 44 in businesses usually open to the public, and 23 in businesses not usually open to pedestrian traffic. A little further digging into the details in the appendix reveals that of the 67 incidents at commercial locations (excluding the 6 at malls), 34 involved employees or ex-employees and 9 involved employee’s spouses, ex-spouses, or partners without benefit of clergy. Of the rest, 11 were in retail food and/or beverage establishments, and 4 at other retailers: a farm supply store, a fitness club, a theater, and a barbershop. Two others appear to be lawyer-client disputes in law offices which may or may not involve spouses. If you do the math, it appears that only 7 cases of random shooters in businesses outside of malls have occurred in the past 15 years, 2 of whom remain at large, so their potential connection to the business remains unknowable.  Only the mall shootings appear to be truly random attacks in the majority of cases. Thus, it seems to me that it might be reasonable assert that focusing on employees’ mental health and offering them assistance in dealing with life’s pressures when needed might be the most effective way to reduce a utility’s exposure to active shooter incidents. 

And tell everyone to stay out of malls.