Active shooter incidents are on the rise in US, and your organization is most definitely at risk.

Quoting FBI statistics, the National Fire Protection Association reports that “an average of 6.4 active shooter events occurred annually in the U.S. from 2000 to 2006. From 2007 to 2013, that average more than doubled, to 16.4. From 2014 to 2015, it climbed to 20.”  The FBI reported that from 2000 to 2013 alone 160 “active shooter” incidents in the US resulted in over 1000 people killed and wounded.

Whether yours is a business, school, religious institution, government office, day care center – any organization – you simply have to be prepared for this all-to-common deadly violence. If you don’t have a crisis plan in place, stop reading this immediately. Your first priority is to get a plan in place as soon as possible. On the other hand, if you do have a crisis plan in place, that plan, along with your organization’s response team, needs to be tested and evaluated in a tabletop exercise specifically focused on an active shooter scenario.

To make your active shooter exercise as productive as possible, it actually must be designed to test two separate but related components: 1) the decision-making by your organization’s leadership and, equally important, 2) how well your employees would respond during an active shooter event. Unlike many other kinds of crises your organization might face, your employees have the potential, along with law enforcement, “to affect the outcome of an (active shooter) event based on their responses,“ according to the FBI report.

The following four tips can help make your tabletop exercise as productive as possible:

Tip 1 – When an active shooter attacks, leadership and employees are both involved. Testing your leadership team’s decision making and your employees’ abilities to respond during an active shooter crisis are equally important. Yet they are separate components of the exercise. It’s advisable then to conduct both types of exercises, separately at first, and subsequently you can advance to conducting both types of exercises simultaneously.

Tip 2 – Prior to conducting the tabletop exercise, training and drills that involve everyone are necessary.  From top management to every employee, every person in the organization is a potential target of an active shooter. Consider also that in any actual situation there would certainly be non-employees present as well, obviously there would be multitudes of customers, for example, in a retail mall. Even in organizations with no public access, there would usually be outsiders in the facility, say vendors or contract workers. An effective drill therefore would need to also take into account the challenges presented when completely untrained outsiders to the organization are inevitably present and completely uninformed about how to respond in an active shooter situation.

Before conducting both types of exercises, training on how to respond when an attack occurs is absolutely necessary and must be provided to everyone in the organization. Several types of active shooter response methodologies are readily available and should be utilized. One excellent example is the US Department of Homeland Security’s campaign, which provides very high-quality educational materials at no charge that should be provided by management and studied by every person in every organization.

RUN, HIDE, FIGHT are the three actions for everyone to remember, urges the materials. These concepts are simple words, but their simplicity on paper is misleading. The ultimate fear and stress created when an intruder is firing a weapon can and will blur the mind and paralyze the body making even simple response actions difficult, and in some cases, impossible. That’s why drills can be of life-saving value.

Consider your organization: Does each employee know where they have at least two evacuation routes? They should, because running away from the attack through a pre-arranged escape route, and convincing others who may be recalcitrant to do likewise, is the first recommended response to an attack.

Related:  Preparing for a Violent Intruder

Run away, first and foremost, even before calling 911. Trainees need to know that that call should only be made from a safe spot. If you can’t get away from the attack the next course of action is to hide. Barricade yourselves behind locked doors if possible, stay quiet, silence your phones, turn off lights. Are there potential hiding places? How might they be secured? Everyone has to know the answers to these deceptively simple questions.

If running and hiding are not working, you are left with no choice but to fight for your very life using improvised weapons, such as spraying or hitting the gunman with a fire extinguisher, throwing heavy objects, acting in a team if other people are available.

At least as important as the basic lessons of run, hide, fight, the response training should also teach employees how they should and should not interact with law enforcement personnel who will inevitably, one would hope, be on the scene sooner rather than later in the crisis. For instance, there are vital rules to follow when evacuating, such as everyone keeping their hands visible so law enforcement responders don’t mistake an innocent person for a perpetrator.

It’s disturbing to watch, but a thoughtfully produced Homeland Security-sponsored video presents many of these lessons in a realistic way. All of these life-saving instructions should be studied, and evacuation routes made known and practiced in drills prior to the tabletop exercise. Observing how people respond during a tabletop exercise should be one of the exercise objectives.

Tip 3 – Include communications challenges for the leadership team. As part of the exercise for the senior managers serving on the crisis response team, you’ll want to create injects for their exercise with serious and challenging questions that will force them to analyze the pros and cons of each response strategy.  These challenges would inevitably occur in an actual crisis: How do you inform employees’ families that there’s been an incident and their loved ones have been injured, or worse, died? Have you implemented and participated in active shooter training and drills with employees? Have you emphasized their importance to employees? These and other difficult communications challenges can all be discussed and practiced during an active shooter tabletop exercise and improved upon following the exercise.

Tip 4 – Stakeholder communications begin well in advance of any active shooter incident. How the leadership team would handle communications with your organization’s stakeholders during an active shooter crisis need to be addressed in detail both prior to and during the exercise. These stakeholder communications will be a critical aspect of your organization’s crisis response.

Each stakeholder group could require very different messages and communications plans. For example, would local law enforcement know in advance of an active shooter incident what your facility’s layout is? This information would be of immense importance when law enforcement personnel are trying to hunt down and neutralize the rampaging shooter within your organization’s facility.

Would local elected officials know in advance of an incident how they would receive information about the incident? As community leaders they would be expected to be able to provide safety information to people outside of the facility who might nonetheless become involved if, for example, the violent assault that began inside your facility moved outdoors to public space.

Does your organization have a plan to deal with social media in the aftermath of an active shooter incident? Social media could contribute to outrageously false rumors being perpetrated as facts by people who are ill-informed and afraid, perhaps inadvertently panicking wider audiences unnecessarily. Part of your exercise should practice dealing with false information being disseminated through social media.

Does your organization have a plan on how to get statements out to both traditional and social media so misinformation doesn’t run amok?

How would you inform your board of directors, if you have one? Institutional shareholders, if yours is a public company? How and what would you communicate with your other facilities in separate locations, who could, conceivably also be targeted in a coordinated attack?

As in any crisis, the communications aspects are of paramount importance and perhaps even more so in a tragic active shooter incident. The critical questions posed here, and many others, can only be effectively assessed and answered through a tabletop exercise.


With the rise of active shooter incidents in the US, it’s incumbent of organizations’ leaders to understand that such a crisis could happen to their organization, and it’s their responsibility to have everyone as prepared as they possibly can be. Having a crisis plan is a necessary first step. But in the case of an active shooter scenario, only pre-exercise training and drills followed by  tabletop exercises for both the leadership team and employees can make the organization as prepared as it possibly can be for an active shooter crisis.