What do you do when your business has an emergency? The question recently came up in our Facebook community, Talk Shop:

Talk Shop safety comment

When you set up a small business, the last thing you want to think about is the possibility of an intruder or active shooter in your workplace. Unfortunately, violence has become a terrifying constant in the news and can directly impact a small business; a recent Atlantic article revealed that homicide is the third most prevalent cause of workplace death.

We know many other business owners probably have questions about keeping their companies safe, so we asked the experts from National Violent Intruder Preparedness Solutions (NVIPS) to share a few things you can do.

Step 1: Make safe habits the norm

It’s the little things that can ensure your business is secure. Kerry Harris, a 31-year police veteran and founder of NVIPS, suggests business owners should:

  • Set ground rules. Use clear messaging in your employee handbook and around your workspace to ensure that all employees are conscious of simple stuff like locking doors and not allowing strangers to walk in without checking in first.
  • Establish protocols. Make sure your team knows what to do in specific situations, like when a co-worker is upset and saying scary, dangerous things. Provide concrete steps to follow in response, like when to alert a manager or call the police. You can share these procedures during safety trainings when employees join or on a periodic basis.
  • Consider getting an alarm system. Beyond-FX, a nine-person graphics studio in Los Angeles, installed an easy-to-use alarm system called SimpliSafe to secure their office. “It has a panic button, and we train employees on how to use it on their first day,” says Mon Saetern, the office manager at Beyond-FX.

Step 2: Know the warning signs

It’s important to keep an eye on people who exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Make threats of violence; the more specific, the more dangerous
  • Demonstrate recurring violent or aggressive behavior
  • Express an undue interest in news about violence
  • Bully or intimidate people
  • Have impulsive behavior or lack impulse control
  • Can’t control their anger
  • Collect weapons, especially those with rapid fire capability or high ammunition capacity
  • Share feelings or statements of isolation, rejection, or persecution
  • Have a sudden negative change in work performance
  • Withdraw from social situations

Step 3: Build a threat assessment team

If a potential threat presents itself, it’s important to know who to turn to. Appoint key members of your team to help gauge the seriousness of the threat and decide how to respond. It’s best to include an HR or operations manager as well as a member of the leadership team to help make decisions and communicate a plan of action.

It’s also helpful to know who in your community can help. Having a psychologist and law enforcement contact to consult means responsibility and decision-making doesn’t fall on any one person. Harris points to some resources:

  • Get familiar with the patrol officers assigned to your district. Contact your local police department to find out who they are and the best way to get in touch.
  • For individuals who express suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—(800) 273-8255.
  • Domestic violence is a common triggering factor in some active shooter situations. Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help—(800) 656-4673.
  • If an active shooter threat was potentially related to terrorism, contact your local Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) field office or the FBI Major Case Contact Center at (800) 225-5324.

Step 4: Create safe spaces

The ideal work environment strikes a balance between operational efficiency, safety, aesthetics, and comfort. “Putting massive doors in is not a realistic option, but identifying safe spaces within the organization is important,” says Harris.

What makes a safe space:

  • No windows or glass doors facing a potential threat
  • Doors that are heavy-duty with a solid core
  • Reliable locks that engage into a good quality door jamb and can be secured from the inside
  • Spaces that have a secondary escape route that can be secured or used as an evacuation route
  • Spaces that your team can barricade

How to use your safe space effectively:

  • Use what you have. A supply closet or break room that can be secured with quality locks and a tough door are great safe spaces. You don’t have to tear off the walls to make a safe space. Just look around and there will be spots that you can secure and mark off as safe in the event of an intrusion.
Simple barricade
Close up of door tie off
  • Know how to barricade. Colin Tanner, partner at NVIPS, says once you’ve chosen a safe space, make sure you can quickly secure it against forced entry. Locking the door is a good first step, but you should also barricade the door with anything you have handy. Get creative: Find whatever material you can, including mop handles, bookshelves, desks. For example, if you’re barricaded in a bathroom, waste baskets, a toiletries rack, and a toilet paper receptacle jammed together between the door and the back wall can become an effective barrier and hold the door shut.
Using ladder in utility closet - outward opening door
  • Help your team get familiar with the safe spaces. Employees often don’t know where to go in scary situations. “It is heart-wrenching to hear stories of people who flee an active shooter and run into a bathroom but find out it can’t be secured,” says Harris, stressing that very rarely is there a space that is not securable. Part of safety training should include a tour of your safe spaces and a demonstration of how to secure them.

Step 5: Create an emergency plan and make sure your team knows it

During a crisis, there’s a lot of fear and confusion—but you can combat them with a solid game plan. Knowing what to do next is half the battle.

Here are procedures Harris recommends should you find yourself in a situation with a violent person:

Have an escalation plan

In every case where someone perceives a threat, police should be called immediately.

Remember that threat assessment team you assembled in Step 3? Make sure one of your appointed team members knows they’re in charge of calling 911 if a situation escalates—for example, if an intruder or employee threatens violence or has a visible weapon.

The employees at Beyond-FX rely on their SimpliSafe alarm system to get help in an emergency: “If the panic button on the keypad is pressed, it sounds the siren in the alarm system and SimpliSafe immediately calls 911. Some of SimpliSafe’s panic buttons can also be programmed to be a silent alarm, meaning no audible alarm comes on but 911 is still called,” explains Saetern. The silent alarm feature is particularly useful if you don’t want the intruder to know that help is on the way.

Have an exit plan

Get away from danger—make that your first move.

For this, you need to have an emergency exit and know how to use it. Harris recalls teaching violence preparedness at a school in the San Francisco Bay Area: “I ran into several people who were unaware of some emergency exits that could have been an escape route,” he says.

Fire codes throughout the country require clearly marked exits (usually with lighted signs) in any place open to the public. In a workplace, staff should be familiar with all exit routes—point each one out as you walk new hires through the space on their first day.

The key is to know your environment and how to get away from a spot if you ever need to. “The best thing to do is get away from real or potential danger,” says Tanner.

Have a lockdown plan

If you are unable to escape, find your safe space and get into lockdown position.

For this, you should go to that securable area you’ve selected and tested in advance. Remember, a suitable safe space isn’t easy to forcibly enter, might offer protection against bullets, and can be secured by you before a potential attacker reaches it.Once you’re in your safe space, secure it with the barricading tips from Step 4.

Most importantly, practice these drills with your employees so that in a moment of panic, you’re doing everything quickly and efficiently. “It’s easy to feel like you don’t have time,” says Harris, “but failing to have that discussion with your staff about what to do leaves people with nothing.”

Practice de-escalation tactics

Distracting or resisting an attacker’s ability to hurt someone is a last resort. “Do not seek out a threat, but if you have tried everything else, defusing and de-escalating may be your best or even your only option,” says Tanner.

It’s important to remember that your mission is survival—so while defusing, look for opportunities to escape rather than trying to disarm an assailant.

Harris suggests:

  • Stay calm. Listen and empathize, keep an open posture, use a calm tone of voice, and maintain eye contact.
  • Choose your words carefully. Use forward-looking language; talk about tomorrow and solving the person’s problems in the future.
  • Do not challenge, criticize, or argue with the person. Don’t minimize their perceived problem—to them, it is a big deal. Listen to them and avoid name-calling. Role-playing a situation in advance can go a long way to helping your team feel prepared for an actual emergency.

Following these steps and talking about danger will help make your workplace safer. We know time is precious, but a day dedicated to safety training can mean you rest easy knowing the business you love is secure.

Photos courtesy of National Violent Intruder Preparedness Solutions (NVIPS).

Kinjal Dagli Shah Kinjal Dagli Shah is a writer and journalist living in Toronto. She has worked in newsrooms in India, the US, and Canada over a span of 15 years and counting.
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