Integrating Active Shooter Awareness

As the chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs (OAFN) at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), I am responsible for ensuring the needs of individuals with disabilities and persons with access or functional needs are identified before, during and after disasters and that they’re integrated within the state’s emergency management systems.

So, when on Dec. 2, 2015, terrorists attacked the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., OAFN dialed in. Because the center serves individuals with developmental disabilities, initial reports indicated the attack was an assault on the disabled. Though we later learned this was not the case, the thought of an attack on individuals with disabilities or access and functional needs raised serious concerns.

That afternoon, our agency leadership met, and we discussed my concerns. At the top of my list was the fact that there was a real gap regarding the access and functional needs-specific considerations associated with an active shooter attack. Nationally, the mantra for active shooter is, “Run, Hide, Fight.”

As a wheelchair-user, I read that mantra and think, “You lost me at ‘run.’”

I had read the material, looked at the training and watched the videos, but when it came to active shooter awareness, there was little-to-nothing addressing access and functional needs. In fact, if you take a look at the Department of Homeland Security’s “Run, Hide, Fight” video, you won’t see a single frame showing someone with a disability or an access or functional need. Not one.

And yet, people with disabilities and individuals with access and functional needs go to work, attend school, shop at malls, stay in hotels and are present at every place where the potential for an active shooter attack exists. Shouldn’t everyone be empowered with the information, guidance and training needed to enhance their safety and security? Of course. From that moment forward, Cal OES committed to ensuring they would be.

We recognized the gaps and committed ourselves to addressing them. The question that remained was how to do it. We resolved that to develop the best, most meaningful product, we would create an inclusive guidance in collaboration with our partners.

And, as if on cue, my phone rang; it was the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. They, too, were concerned about the day’s events and the lack of guidance. They wanted to see action taken, and they wanted to be part of the solution. From this, we formed the Cal OES Active Shooter Awareness Task Force, and our first partners at the table came from the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. We continued this approach, bringing together partners from law enforcement, regional centers, the California Specialized Training Institute, the Independent Living Centers and other emergency managers to spearhead the development of a first-of-its-kind active shooter awareness guidance.

In the course of our meetings, one of the key issues we tackled was the fact that the guidance needed to strike a balance between informing law enforcement about access and functional needs and prescribing tactics. Law enforcement uses specific tactics when responding to active shooter attacks. Those tactics are not subject to negotiation (nor would we want to inadvertently undermine their efforts to promote safety and security during active shooter scenarios). However, we could absolutely inform law enforcement of how to effectively enhance their situational awareness. As such, the guidance stresses the importance of understanding, accounting for, and appropriately addressing access and functional needs before, during, and after response.

After much deliberation, and over the course of the next six months, we met in-person, via conference call and through an unreal amount of e-mail to address each area of concern. The result was guidance that informs three primary audiences on how to promote the safety and security of individuals with disabilities and persons with access or functional needs during an active shooter attack. Those audiences are:

  • Workforce management: Workforce management has a primary responsibility for the safety and security of their staff. As individuals with disabilities and access and functional needs are employed throughout the workforce, management needs to understand how best to integrate their needs into emergency planning, such as evacuation procedures and crisis communication during an active shooter attack.
  • Individuals with disabilities and access and functional needs: The “Run, Hide, Fight” mantra is reasonable and appropriate, but each of those steps has access and functional needs-related implications. Persons with disabilities and access and functional needs should ensure that their individual needs are integrated into their organization’s emergency evacuation plan, develop a “buddy system” for assistance evacuating or concealing themselves to avoid an attacker, and think creatively about how to use personal assistive devices (e.g., canes, crutches, wheelchairs) as weapons if needed during an active shooter attack.
  • Law enforcement/first responders: Law enforcement and first responders called upon to respond to an active shooter incident may encounter individuals with disabilities or persons with access and functional needs among the survivors. These individuals may not be able to hear, physically comply with or cognitively understand direct commands. Law enforcement and first responders need to be informed regarding what to expect and how to communicate effectively with individuals with disabilities and access and functional needs during and after an active shooter event.

Upon completing its process, the workgroup had absolutely fulfilled its mission. We created a document that addressed access and functional needs. The agency, however, now had a decision to make. It could release the guidance as a stand-alone product specific to access and functional needs, while continuing to promote its existing (outdated) document. But that would mean having two guidances, one for individuals with access and functional needs and one for their non-disabled counterparts.

For us, the decision was easy. At Cal OES, we don’t believe in having separate guidance, plans or documents for people based on whether they have a disability or access or functional needs. When it comes to safety and security, we believe in one team, one fight. That means one document.

We decided to take what the workgroup developed and integrate it within the agency’s active shooter guidance. And so it is that California has become the first state to release a fully integrated active shooter awareness guidance.

We’re proud of what we’ve done, and we’re eager to share it with you.

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L. Vance Taylor is the Chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.  Vance is responsible for ensuring the needs of individuals with disabilities and persons with access and functional needs are identified before, during and after a disaster. Vance is a nationally recognized public speaker and advocate for individuals with disabilities.  He has a Master's degree in homeland security from the University of Connecticut and an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University in communications.

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