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Employees must steel themselves to survive active shooters, experts say

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Gunfire erupts several shots near the entrance of your business. You drop the phone and freeze at your desk.

Not smart. Paralysis makes you lose precious seconds that you and co-workers could use to save your lives. You need a plan, forged in advance of crisis, so you can react fast.

“When startled by a gunshot, it’s a natural human reaction to freeze,” according to an active-shooter training video from the Department of Homeland Security. “Unfortunately, this response leaves you vulnerable to what might come next.”

When an active shooter enters a workplace, overcome the instinct to freeze. Kick into action. Quickly determine where the gunshots originated. Don’t necessarily rush down the stairway to the exit. That move could make you the next target.

According to DHS, take action in this order: run, hide, fight.

Run

Run in any direction away from the gunfire. Distance from a shooter boosts your chances of survival. Have an escape route and plan in mind. Help others escape if you can. Move fast. You may have to leave wounded people behind.

“If you own a business or operate a large public facility, you may be able to better enable individual response to such events,” the DHS said, “by identifying emergency escape routes and exits. Design evacuation plans that can be used by employees and guests. This training may be the difference between life and death. See about technology you can incorporate to make your facility safer.”

Employers can equip staff with a “go kit or emergency laddering in case you are not on the first story,” the DHS trainer said. “Explore mass-notification technologies.”

Hide

Trapped in the building? Look for places to hide. Close the door, lock it, shove a desk or bookcase against the door, then another. Make it tough for anyone to push the door open. Then get away from it in case a shooter fires through the door or walls. Keep your body close to the floor to minimize your size as a target. Silence your cell phone so an incoming message or call doesn’t give you away. If you can call 911 but cannot speak, leave the line open.

“If the shooter is right outside your door, is it the best thing to walk out that door and go down the corridor? Maybe not,” said Rainer Navarro, captain and trainer of the SWAT team for the Santa Rosa police department. “Do you have safe rooms, a hardened area?”

Fight

Sometimes these tactics fail and a shooter bursts into your office or cubicle, firing. As a last resort, fight for your life and lives of co-workers. Be fierce — animal with survival instinct. Don’t cower in fear. Yell. Throw something, improvise a weapon.

“Your chance of survival is much greater if you try to incapacitate him/her,” DHS said.

“Assume that your actions are all that stand between yourself, your colleagues and grave harm,” the trainer said. “Fight for your life. Search around you for sharp or heavy objects that you may use to disable the attacker. Collaborate with those around you. You are taking action for your survival. Do not hold back. Do not stop fighting until you know you are safe. Commit to your decision.”

“There’s always an element of surprise” and the shooter “may not be expecting a person to take them on. It may be enough to overcome him and save the lives of others. It depends on your personal confidence,” Navarro said. “Not everybody is going to be able to do that,” he said.

“Our training is to stop the threat. Even one officer can make the difference,” Navarro said. In an active-shooter attack on a workplace, patrol officers usually arrive first. The SWAT team may be called if hostages are taken or a barricaded shooter must be stopped. “We can rally pretty quickly to get react teams going” before the full SWAT team gets to the scene, he said.

What drives a shooter?

On April 2, Nasim Aghdam slipped through a parking garage at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, about 65 miles from Santa Rosa and less than 30 from San Rafael. In a courtyard, she randomly shot three company employees with a 9 millimeter semiautomatic handgun then turned it on herself. Fortunately, no one else died.

In a chilling detail, on the morning of the shooting, Aghdam calmly practiced her aim while firing at a range near YouTube. Then she went to attack the business.

The previous day she drove 500 miles from San Diego. Though her motivation remains unconfirmed, it appears that YouTube’s advertising-payment policies for online videos irked Aghdam, reportedly from Iran. “YouTube filtered my channels,” she said in one online post, “to keep them from getting views!”

In an online video she took of herself, she said, “I am being discriminated. My new videos hardly get viewed. My old videos that used to get many views stopped getting views.”

Unpredictable

“Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly,” according to DHS, and are “often over within 10 to 15 minutes, before law enforcement arrives. Individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter situation.”

In 2016, there were 500 homicides in workplaces throughout the United States, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a census dated December 2017. Shootings accounted for 394 of those killings. Only 13 percent of the violence came from co-workers. The threat came usually from outside.

Of the 500 homicides, men took 409 victims and women killed 91. Nearly 40 percent of the murders by women involved relationships or domestic partners. Almost a third of the homicides by men occurred during robberies.

According to national statistics on workplace violence, chances of death or injury from an active shooter far outweigh other risks. In 2016, only 32 people died in workplace fires; explosions caused 55 deaths.

Captain Navarro, in law enforcement for 26 years, oversees training of the SWAT team for the Santa Rosa police department. “I have investigated dozens of shootings,” he said.

Police usually reach the scene of a shooting after it’s over. Their job is to help the injured, gather evidence and interview witnesses. But they train regularly in tactics to stop an active shooter in any workplace, as well as schools and other venues.

“We have robust training,” Navarro said, including if “somebody may be shooting at us, shooting at other people. When somebody has a gun in their hand, we try to talk them down, deescalate the situation. Active-shooter training allows us to deal with the threat, stop the threat,” he said.

“Be prepared personally on what you’re going to do. Run-hide-fight gives you some options,” Navarro said, including “if you are cornered, lock the door and hide. If it’s right in front of you — the fight portion — take the person on to minimize casualties. It’s dynamic. What happens if you find out there’s more than one shooter?”

In a January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, two brothers involved in terrorism wielded military-grade automatic rifles to kill 12, including the editor and prominent cartoonists, and injure 11. In a December 2015 San Bernardino shooting, a married couple aligned with terrorists burst into the Inland Regional Center and killed 14, injuring 22.

“Unfortunately, we live in an age where we have to be dealing with this,” Navarro said. “When people ask us what they should do (in a shooting), we tell them to have a plan.”

Cal/OSHA regulations to mandate training

In January, Cal/OSHA held public meetings to receive comments on draft regulations that would require all employers in California to train workers about active-shooter response, according to Eric Berg, deputy chief of Cal/OSHA research and standards since 2015. Draft regulations on workplace violence will be published by summer 2018.

“We will change it so it’s practical for businesses and provides the best protection possible for people,” Berg said.

Cal/OSHA already has legal authority to mandate active-shooter training, Berg said. The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, appointed by the governor, will vote to adopt the new standards. New regulations and rules will likely be finalized by 2020, and will apply to employers of any size, even those with one employee.

“It would be any type of workplace violence,” Berg said. “We try to target the worst hazards. This would cover general industry, every single employer in California.” Employers will be mandated to train employees and provide a written plan to cope with an active shooter.

Cal/OSHA will supply employers with online training materials and guidelines. “Consultants should not be necessary,” Berg said. “We have a consultation branch that can help employers directly. There’s no charge.”

The Cal/OSHA actions were prompted by a 2014 petition from Meleah Hall, a teacher in Discovery Bay. Regulations requiring active-shooter training for California schools are already in place.

Additional petitions came from the California Nurses Association, based in Oakland, and Service Employees International Union, representing health-care workers. “Health care is already a regulation that is enforced,” Berg said. Regulations for health-care organizations went into effect in April.

Berg recommends that employers not wait for mandatory regulations, but move to train employees now in how to react to active-shooter situations.

Obey police

After an active shooter goes into a workplace and police arrive, employees need to follow police directions. “We may tell somebody, get down on the ground or put your hands in the air and walk out,” Santa Rosa’s Navarro said. “Do exactly what they say. We don’t know who the aggressor is. We treat everybody as a potential threat. It’s incredibly confusing.”

In the Florida shooting in February, gunman Nikolas Cruz allegedly dropped his AR-15 rifle and blended in with other students leaving the building. “The shooter walked out with everybody else,” Navarro said. “If you see something, try to remember. Let officers know. It’s very valuable.”

Emergency action plan

“To best prepare your staff for an active shooter situation, create an emergency-action plan and conduct training exercises,” the DHS said. Perhaps most importantly, adopt a “survival mind set.”

“Most buildings or organizations have some type of emergency plan. You may have multiple organizations within the building. They should work together to coordinate. Every organization needs to come up with its own plan and train through it,” Navarro said.

“Whenever you enter a building as an employee, guest or customer, you must be prepared,” according to a video on active shooters from DHS. “Know what you will do if faced with the worst-case scenario.”

“What are your exit routes, whether for a fire or an active shooter? That type of training should be for any organization — quarterly, monthly or biannual. The more you train, the more mentally prepared you are,” Navarro said. “If you happen to be at your desk, think about what your plan would be. Practice.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257