FBI Hostage Rescue Team training FBI Hostage Rescue Team training (FBI photo)

Hard Conversations About Soft Targets: DHS Workshop Aims to Save Lives in Mass Shootings

With an escalating rate of active-shooter incidents and an alarming spike in the number of casualties inflicted in attacks on often soft targets, private-sector stakeholders ranging from office buildings to religious institutions are partnering with government to absorb protection and response strategies.

Representatives from the law enforcement community and the Department of Homeland Security huddled with some of these stakeholders as they took concrete steps to develop organizational plans today at a daylong DHS Active Shooter Preparedness Workshop at the Marriott Marquis in Washington.

Brian Harrell, assistant director for infrastructure security at DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told participants that the goal of these workshops is to put practical, usable, and especially shareable information in the hands of those at the community level in this current threat landscape.

“It’s all about value,” he said. “It’s about using security best practices to better your organization and ultimately save lives in a time of crisis.”

While the government focuses on protecting critical assets in the infrastructure realm, “our most critical asset is our people – how are we protecting people?”

“There is a small segment of society out there focused on hate and bigotry; they are trying to do the most damage and destroy the lives of our most innocent people,” Harrell said, highlighting the “moral responsibility” of the government to lead “very uncomfortable” conversations about threats and educate citizens on confronting the danger, as well as helping foster relationships that can reduce risk. “It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when, and are we prepared for such events.”

Tabletop exercises and team discussions ultimately lead to assessment of first-name-basis relationships that need to be built and security investments that need to be made.

“I recognize that investments don’t happen overnight,” Harrell noted. “Are we building security, redundancy and resiliency into our budgets, or are we just being reactive to everything?”

He added that “we will not get any better during a crisis — we will fall back to our training.”

“If you don’t know your local officer, law enforcement agency, you need to have that relationship now. We can’t be passing around business cards as bullets are whizzing by.”

Jeff Carroll, assistant chief of police overseeing the Homeland Security Bureau at D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, called the workshop symbolic of the partnerships it will take between police, government and community members to curb the gun violence “that is destroying too many American families.”

Carroll emphasized the intense training undertaken by D.C. police to prepare for an active shooting. “We are consistently evolving as a department, becoming more innovative and resourceful,” he said. “We must continue to evolve on an ongoing basis.”

“Workplaces must ensure they have a comprehensive plan on how to respond to an active threat,” he said. “Training and exercises are the most effective ways to prepare staff to respond to an incident.”

Coordination, Carroll noted, is “a very important component” in active-shooter response strategies: “Coordination becomes just as critical as the response plan itself.”

The FBI defines an active shooter as “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area,” differentiating the incidents from other crimes involving shots fired with motivations ranging from drug-related crimes to gang or domestic violence. From 2000 to 2008 there were 6.7 active-shooter incidents per year, on average, jumping to 23.3 per year from 2009 to 2018.

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Last year, the FBI documented 27 active-shooter incidents in 16 states, with 85 people killed and 128 wounded. Out of 27 shooters, three were female and one was still at large. Nine of these incidents ended with a shootout between cops and the gunmen.

The D.C./Maryland/Virginia region has experienced 23 active-shooting incidents since 1966, with a higher percentage than the national norm occurring at government facilities. The most lethal DMV incident was the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were slain.

As workshop participants dove into the day’s exercises, Harrell told HSToday that DHS tries to “remove the details of the attacker from the equation and really just focus on the risk landscape itself.”

“Regardless of the motivation, we are focused on risk reduction and having the physical security protective measures in place, having a plan for response and recovery, having an exercise program and having those relationships in place with law enforcement. Those are all constant. Those are all the foundations of the program regardless of how the threat materializes or is introduced,” he said.

“We always default to what we know during a crisis. We’re not all of a sudden going to get better,” he said of the training. “We’re going to default to the things that we are aware of and we know, and so it’s imperative that we’re exercising the crisis-response plans that we do. And what’s unfortunate is there’s a lack of those plans out there. The good part of this workshop here today was people understand that this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. We need to be ready for what comes next. We need to be prepared to be overwhelmed.”

Asked which preparedness relationships could use better development, Harrell replied that it starts from the ground up: “It’s having faith leaders, that campus vice principal, it’s having the building manager of these large corporate campuses throughout the country having that very basic relationship with local law enforcement, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Having those three relationships in place are going to ultimately bring a better response and save lives. That is incredibly imperative as we build these plans going forward.”

“Typically, right after an event is when we receive the most interest into our programs,” he said. “It’s a pretty obvious statement, right? I mean, everyone is trying to prevent the next attack — you know ‘if it can happen there, it could happen here.’ Immediately we have the American public’s attention, and it is incumbent upon us to provide them the resources to be better, to harden their facilities. And I think we have taken advantage of that in the past by pushing out our products and those products being used, which ultimately saves lives.”

DHS offers a trove of open-source resources including guides, video and white papers to assist those in myriad situations from campus security to open-venue security, as well as better protecting synagogues, mosques and churches. Individuals can also learn better situational awareness and active-shooter response measures including the principle of “run, hide, fight.”

“Where there has been an opportunity to run, people have successfully ran. Where there’s been an opportunity to engage and save lives, there has been a number of very courageous individuals who have done just that and ultimately saved further death and destruction,” Harrell said. “I think the message is hitting home. The message is resonating and that’s important to us.”

Asked which threat concerns him most right now, Harrell replied that “as we look at these soft targets and some of the crowded places that are out there, the concern that I have is that there are some organizations out there that haven’t taken the message of protecting our people as seriously as they should.”

“Meaning, they haven’t done the response and recovery plans. They haven’t engaged local law enforcement in creating those relationships. They haven’t exercised that response plan, and these things are just foundational to saving people’s lives,” he said. “And so my concern is that there are some individuals, companies, organizations out there that haven’t been as forward-leaning on this as possible, which will create more death and destruction that we could have otherwise avoided.”

Recent incidents have underscored that no place of business, educational institution, house or worship or gathering place is immune from the threat of an active shooter.

“Workplace violence and a crisis that revolves around security issues can happen anywhere. It doesn’t need to be critical infrastructure. It doesn’t need to be at a military installation. It doesn’t need to be at an airport,” Harrell said. “It can be at the very, very local level, where that strong security apparatus isn’t in place. That makes you more vulnerable. So all the more reason to up your game, all the more reason to invest in security and be ready for when crisis hits.”

DHS conducts Active Shooter Preparedness Workshops nationally. For more information, reach out to ASworkshop@hq.dhs.gov. Explore the CISA Active Shooter Preparedness resource materials here.

CISA Updates Soft-Target Resource Guide to Reflect Recent Attacks and Threats

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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