Why businesses are resorting to shooter defense training

Joan McGuire

In an age of frequent mass shootings, employers teach staff how to fight back against violent intruders.

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The risk of an employee getting shot and killed is real for Jaclyn Rudebeck, a people operations director. “Every couple of days, it seems, news hits the wires about a shooting. It is happening so often now that I am constantly aware of it,” she says.

You could be forgiven for thinking Rudebeck’s employees work in a war zone or in a lawless country; in fact, they work for Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene.

The increased frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. has everyone concerned about personal safety, whether it be in a school, place of worship, or at work.  

Just this month, two shooting incidents occurred on business premises. On November 7, 12 people were killed by a gunman at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. The week before, three people died in a shooting inside a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida.  

Employers are resorting to sending their employees to trainings to learn how to defend themselves against a shooter. Such courses are not new, but with shootings becoming more frequent and gun-control legislation stalled in Congress, so-called active shooter defense trainings could become as common in U.S. corporate life as the fire drill.   

This month, Ninkasi Brewing Company sent two staffers to train as instructors in how to survive a shooting. The two-day course was held by the ALICE Training Institute, an Ohio company that teaches people and organizations how to handle a shooter. The Ninkasi Brewing employees who attended the course will teach staff the skills they learned during the training.   
GloryBee, a maker of honey-based food and self-care products, partnered with local lumber company Seneca Sawmill to host the ALICE training course at its manufacturing facility in Eugene. Jason Wallace, GloryBee safety supervisor, says teaching employees how to defend themselves from a shooting fits with the company’s culture of helping staffers be as prepared as possible.

“We looked at the violence across the nation and the world; we asked ourselves, could this happen here? We think it could,” says Wallace.

He sees potential risks of an attack stemming from violent spouses of employees. There have been cases of employees who have told the company they have experienced domestic violence, says Wallace. He also worries about risks of violent retaliation from employees who have been terminated.

Shootings that happen at work tend not to hit the headlines as much as incidents that occur in schools and places of worship. That’s because workplace shootings often have smaller numbers of fatalities. In fact, 50% of shootings happen in the business sector, while schools account for around 25%, says Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE Training Institute.

Crane says that when he started his company 18 years ago, schools were the sole customers of his training sessions. In the past five to six years, he started to get more requests from businesses.

“We are growing tremendously. More people want this training. We have more customers every year,” he says.

Crane’s brand of training is based on the premise that people who come under attack can defend themselves better if they proactively try to stop the intruder. This diverges from traditional lockdown procedure, which calls for doors to be closed, lights turned off and occupants hidden under desks or in a closet.

ALICE training teaches people to try to distract the shooter by throwing objects in the attacker’s field of vision and making noise. “The minute you are a passive and static target, you are an easy target,” says Crane.

Trainers do not advocate for shooting back at the attacker because of the danger of hitting innocent bystanders.

Crane, a former police officer, was inspired to start the ALICE Training Institute after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999. The Columbine shooting, in which 15 people died, is regarded as the start of an uptick in mass shootings in the U.S.

At the time of the Columbine shooting, Crane was shocked to hear from his wife, then a school principal, that the protocol for dealing with school shootings was to passively sit and hide. The school shooting was the catalyst for him to start ALICE training.

This style of training is controversial because of potential stress it creates for the individual undergoing the training, particularly in the case of young children. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that mental health professionals are involved in every stage of armed assailant training. Staff should be trained to recognize common trauma reactions, according to its guidelines.

The state does not endorse any particular employee training to deal with shootings in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that sets standards for workplace safety, publishes guidelines that say employers have a legal and ethical obligation to promote a work environment free from threats and violence. It recommends employers adopt a workplace violence prevention program and provide regular employee training in preventative measures. But it does not describe what this training should be.

“You just need to have a plan. If you have no plan, you will fail.”
Tim Fox, Oregon state trooper

ALICE training has been effective in preventing fatalities, says Crane. Among the 16 organizations that had a shooting after ALICE training, he says, no one died. No third-party, national data exists on the effectiveness of active shooter defense training in preventing fatalities.  

Tim Fox, a captain with the Oregon State Police, says employers should have a plan to deal with a shooter. He does not endorse a particular training program because every situation is different. Sometimes a traditional lockdown is most effective; other times a more proactive approach, such as ALICE, works better, he says.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Fox. “You just need to have a plan. If you have no plan, you will fail.”

Back in Eugene, Rudebeck says the local police force did not have the capacity to provide shooter defense training and recommended she try ALICE instead.
Does she worry that training employees how to defend themselves against a shooter will make them anxious and even paranoid about an attack? Rudebeck sees the training more as an extension of the company’s risk management, just like robbery response training and earthquake drills, and feels it is more empowering than frightening.

“With the frequency of incidents happening in this country, I don’t think people on the team think this will not happen here,” she says.

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