Real-World Lessons From An Active Shooter Event

Jeff Trask, emergency preparedness expert, joins Danielle Ricci, Sr. Director of Marketing for AlertFind, to lead a discussion about the vital role emergency alerts and communications planning played in an active shooter event.

In our recorded webinar, he examines how pre planned alerts and a strong emergency management team were critical to the successful handling of the situation.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Join Jeff Trask and Danielle Ricci as they continue this conversation and answer your questions live on April 26th.

Danielle Ricci: Let’s start by telling us about your role as an emergency management administrator..

Jeff Trask: I oversaw the emergency planning, emergency notification systems, the emergency operation center and crisis management organization.

We helped support the on-scene response, provide those responding with whatever type of resources that they needed to do their jobs, and also assisted with the continuity of operations for essential business functions.

Danielle Ricci: How did your group interact with the campus police?

Jeff Trask: We worked in cooperation with the campus police in the management of the emergency notification system. We configured the system to have the appropriate user groups installed and made sure it pulled in the data from everyone on campus that signed up for the notification system. Working with the campus police, they would notify us of any type of crisis that may require the activation of the emergency notification system.

Danielle Ricci: So this incident started with the Boston Marathon bombing. Can you walk us through the events of that week?

Jeff Trask: My boss at the time would reach out to work with some of my colleagues to spin up a conference call to discuss what's happening because we are all in various locations in the area.

We had sent out some emergency notifications and the tone of the communications was informing people what happened and encouraging them to avoid that area.

Danielle Ricci: Can you tell us more about the toolbox approach you took with stakeholders?

Jeff Trask: We had all the right players. I think that we were fortunate that, as a program, we were able to build those strong relationships in advance of an incident. I have heard of many incidents where there's issues with people being territorial and then they don't play well with others.

That is not an effective way to do emergency management.I felt we had built all the right pre-disaster relationships to make sure that the right folks were engaged and that we had all the right stakeholders on the phone. As a best practice, I would strongly encourage if somebody's community or organization does not have that type of dialogue happening, that they probably should. It's only going to pay off dividends during the real incident.

Danielle Ricci: What role did your ENS play in the process, specifically around preplanning your alerts and your lockdown strategies?

Jeff Trask: A key role and responsibility of the emergency management function is bringing stakeholders together to preplan what we would do in the event of an emergency. One of the key things that you do in emergency management is communicate, right? So you're communicating. You're facilitating. You're managing resources.

But number one is communication. So it's all about getting those stakeholders together. All those people that would normally participate in an emergency operation center you get them together to talk about some of those most common threats and hazards that could impact the school.

You look at everything from floods, fires, earthquakes to workplace violence, campus violence, active shooter. So with those stakeholders engaged, working on pre scripted messaging that everybody could kind of agree on to send out during an incident.

With emergency notification systems, you need to have three pieces of information - What is it? Where is it? And what can you do to protect yourself? If you can't transmit that information out to people, how can that message be successful, right? So we looked at building templates and pre scripting messaging that reflected that type of messaging.

It's about making sure we have all the right players that we wanted engaged in this virtual emergency operation center on the list that would receive the notification to join that conference bridge. Having the messaging ready to go so these prescripted messages were there.

We knew what we were going to say and how we were going to say it. You filled in the blanks, and you transmitted the message. That saves you time. You want to get the messaging out as quickly as possible because, at this point, you might be preventing people from walking into harm's way.

I think it was extremely effective in communicating essential information to our stakeholder population and then giving them an official source of information because sometimes people will jump to Facebook or Twitter or even some media reports. And while sometimes they are accurate, sometimes they're not. At least this was providing an official source of information that people could turn to for vetted, factual information.

Danielle Ricci: Were the internal stakeholders that you worked with to create the emergency plan the same as those on the virtual EOC?

Jeff Trask: A substantial portion were. We always took the toolbox approach to emergency management. We had many stakeholders identified that we collaborated with. For example, we brought together people that would help build messaging or contribute to messaging. They included people from the communications department, facilities, security, police, HR, legal, compliance, etc.

And then depending on the nature of the emergency, we would activate those stakeholders as needed. So in this case, obviously, your police department is going to be number one, then security for your cameras and card access, etc. You're going to want somebody from facilities on there. Maybe somebody from HR, somebody from communications.

So you're going to activate and engage them as needed depending on how the incident develops and unfolds.

Danielle Ricci: What surprised you about this process?

Jeff Trask: When you’re planning, nothing is ever going to go exactly as designed, but I think the process of going through the planning, the building of the relationships in advance, and getting to know people and getting used to working with certain people, really paid off dividends in terms of our ability to respond and effectively communicate during that incident.

Things just don't happen as expected. I personally didn't realize the reach. I had the TV on in the room where I was listening to the conference call, and then I saw messaging that I'd sent out maybe a minute or two earlier start to appear as a crawl in the bottom of the screen.

Seeing that something you're sending out to your community as a safety message is now up on national news was unexpected.

People were willing to do whatever they had to do in order to be effective. People are just willing to make the sacrifice to be there and participate and contribute. That was pretty cool. And obviously, people have a sense of duty and a sense of responsibility which really shines during that event. So that was really nice to see.

Danielle Ricci: Did seeing your alerts broadcast on the news change how you wrote them?

Jeff Trask: No. We followed the same format - what is it, where is it, and how can you protect yourself? If you're using text messages, you have to be very concise. You might need to use certain abbreviations, etc.. You want to make sure you're not confusing people and you are effectively delivering your message. I think if you just keep it professional and clear, concise, and it's good effective messaging, then I don't think you can really mess it up at that point.

Danielle Ricci: Stick to the fundamentals, right?

Jeff Trask: Stick to fundamentals, and that's where the preplanning comes into play. The last thing you want to do is send out a message that's just a template, right? So you don't want to push the button too quickly because now you're sending something out that's not complete.

But when you pre script things and when you think through them in advance, it certainly makes it a lot easier, especially when you have a lot going on and there's a lot of activity happening. You know the questions that you need to answer, right? So you're reading that template and it says, fill in the blank here, fill in the blank here. So you know a piece of information is missing. You fill in those blanks. And then once you have a complete message, you can go ahead and send it.

Then of course targeting the right audience is important too, right? So making sure that you're not targeting a too limited amount of people or, conversely, too many people. It's finding the right balance of who needs this message.

Then think about what is the mode that we're going to send it by? Those are things that we would always talk about in advance as well. Does this type of incident require a text message or does this require a text message and a voice mail or a voice call? Does it require email, text message, voice, and then also social media?

Danielle Ricci: When you're talking about the different modes, is there any reason not to send it on more channels?

Jeff Trask: It depends on the severity of the event. If it's a thunderstorm warning or something, then I'll send out a text message to people. And that's going to be it. Or maybe it's just an email letting people know.

But if it's something severe like an active shooter incident or a tornado warning, then I’m going to cast as wide a net as possible. So it might be just a text message, an email or a social media update because I want to disrupt them and get their attention, right?

Once we have everybody's attention, the follow-up messaging may be a little bit more passive. So, from a stylistic standpoint, I don't want to keep ringing somebody's phone because, at some point, they're going to want to get back to business and you don't want their phone ringing every five minutes either.

Danielle Ricci: How do you decide who’s authorized to send alerts?

Jeff Trask: There's multiple people that have the ability to send alerts. In this case, I was in a location where I had a computer, I had a strong internet signal, and I had the ability to do it effectively. So I took on that responsibility. It’s a best practice to have multiple folks that have the ability to send those alerts and are trained on how to send those alerts. You want that redundancy built in. I found that to work very well because, you never know, somebody could be on vacation or might be out of cell service. So you definitely don't want to rely on just one single point of failure.

Danielle Ricci: Should you have a second person check over the alert before you send it out?

Jeff Trask: It’s always good, especially if you're in an emergency operation center either virtually or a physical one, to read the message aloud before you send it. You can confirm with your neighbor, which makes you feel better about what you're sending out and it helps catch any kind of errors that you might miss in the heat of the moment.

Danielle Ricci: Were there any changes that you made to your emergency plan after this event?

Jeff Trask: We went through the normal after-action review process and to see what could be improved upon. Like with anything else, you're always trying to refine your messaging and your targeting, etc. The process we had in place really served us well during that incident.

Danielle Ricci: Any advice you’d offer to companies doing this type of planning?

Jeff Trask: When you're going to implement an emergency notification system, I think it's very important to look at three things - who the audience is, what the message is, and what modes you're going to use to send it.

From an audience standpoint, you have the right granularity in terms of the groups that are present within your emergency notification system. While it's important to be able to message the entire group, it's also nice to have the ability to target specific segments - by department, by business unit or by manager.

Go through your system and build those groups in advance so when the emergency happens and you need to notify them, you have that ability to just pick those groups right away.

Make sure you’re covering the main areas we discussed when pre planning alerts. What is it? Where is it? What can you do to protect yourself? That’s very important as far as I'm concerned.

Building the relationships with your stakeholders is key. Having regular meetings of your emergency management staff and stakeholders so that when you're walking into an incident you already have a rapport. Then you're already on the same page with how you're going to handle things.

Danielle Ricci: What type of training did you do?

Jeff Trask: We did a lot of promotional activities around the ENS. You definitely want to get the word out there and let people know that you're not going to abuse the system, you're going to respect people's time and their privacy and only use it during an emergency.

One of the things I like to do with my staff is basically do test messaging every week. So somebody gets on and they send a test message to a small group. It keeps them sharp. It keeps them familiar with the system because sometimes you can go months, even years, without having a real activation of the system. So you don't want somebody to be stumbling around when the time comes to actually use it.

Danielle Ricci: Was there anything that you felt ill prepared for, anything that actually caught you by surprise?

Jeff Trask: It was probably just the emotional impact. I think you have a lot of people who are very upset and they're very disturbed after an act of violence like this. It takes a while for people to get back to normal. I think that's the thing that really caught me off guard.

I think as you prepare and as you work with a lot of these scenarios and you drill and you exercise, you just learn to accept it. Whether it's conducting a training on active shooter and workplace violence or actually going through a real event, I think just seeing people's emotional reactions, it's a very emotional topic, and making sure that you do your part as an organization to adequately prepare to deal with the emotional fallout that comes from an event like this.

You need to make sure that you have the right services available to your employees. Also surprising was the emotional outpouring of support and love that you see come out during a real incident. So just to see that outpouring of support was something I never thought of - it just completely overwhelmed my expectations.

Join Jeff and Danielle to learn more about how to apply these communications best practices to your organization’s emergency preparedness plans in our recorded, “Active Shooter Case Study: Lessons In Emergency Planning & Communications.”

You are well on your way toward protecting your staff and organization.

Take the next step toward protecting your organization by learning more about emergency notification systems and the vital role they play in your emergency preparedness plan.