Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder asked Congress to approve $15 million to pay for training to help law enforcement officials handle incidents in which armed individuals are actively gunning for innocent bystanders.
"Between 2000 and 2008, the United States experienced an average of approximately five active shooter incidents every year," Holder said in his April announcement. "Since 2009, this annual average has roughly tripled."
From a mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas to a gunman opening fire at a Jewish community center near Kansas City to more than one school shooting around the country, there's been no lack of examples this spring on how violence can occur in places where people put their packed lunches in the fridge and settle in to earn a paycheck.
Poke around enough, said Bo Mitchell, president of 911 Consulting in Wilton, Connecticut, and it's not hard to find incidents of violence — and not just active shooter incidents — have occurred in all sorts of workplaces.
So while it's critical to train law enforcement, it's also important for companies to help their own employees respond effectively in emergencies. No matter how quickly the police and firefighters show up, Mitchell said, they won't be the ones in place to handle the initial problem.
"The first responders are your employees," he said.
The nation's occupational safety and health regulations require employers to provide a safe workplace, an assignment that includes a range of responsibilities from providing safe tools and equipment to training employees about hazardous chemicals used in the workplace.
Mitchell — a former police commissioner in Wilton who works with companies, schools and universities to develop emergency plans and train staff — said there's some confusion among companies about what topics they need to address, but there's little doubt top management will be held accountable if something terrible happens and there was no attempt to prepare.
His reading of the rules is that every workplace should get employees into a classroom at least once a year for training on issues such as violence, bullying and other hazards.
Most don't do that and don't really think that such problems will happen to them, he said. "All employers are in denial," Mitchell said. "All Americans are in denial."
So what if the worst happens?
A New York Police Department study that looked at active shooter incidents from 1966 to 2010 came up with some recommendations to help building security personnel mitigate the risks, including designating shelter areas with thick walls, first-aid kits and doors with locks. For situations when shelter can't be found in time, it also advised teaching building occupants to try to "disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter by throwing objects, using aggressive force and yelling."
Even if it doesn't come to that and the emergency is instead a co-worker being threatened in the parking lot by a spouse or a colleague having chest pains at his desk, it's better when employees have a good idea of how to help.
As Mitchell noted, "You're going to have to be the ones to respond."
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