5 Tips for Preventing Active Shooter Drills from Going Sideways

By Tim Goergen  |   Sep 18, 2019

Over the last few months, there have been several active shooter drills conducted in public venues – at least one in the middle of a very populated urban area during prime business hours – that ended up causing confusion, fear, and some chaos. These drills are critical, and we support them, but just as critical as the actual real-time execution of the exercise is the planning of the event.

Here are a few key things planners can do to better ensure that your drill runs smoothly, not sideways.

1. Tabletop it first…thoroughly. Meeting with all involved groups to conduct a thorough tabletop strategy session will not only better ensure the effectiveness of your drill but will allow you to surface any issues of awareness and safety that need to be addressed before putting people in play. With focused insight, this planning will help you avoid having to navigate surprise weaknesses or challenges during a live event.

A real-world example of this involved an active shooter drill I was observing in a location that included CCTV cameras. These allowed security personnel to have eyes on about 80-percent of the property within seconds. Shockingly, when the drill went down, no one came to the CCTV room, which is where I was staged. Had they used the cameras, they could have located the shooter immediately and responded. The hope is you will surface a weakness like that in your plan during the tabletop (“You will go to the CCTV room…”) and resolve it prior to action.

2. Be smart about timing. Choosing the most appropriate day and time to conduct your drill is usually specific to nuances related to the venue. If you’re conducting your drill at a mall, for example, you’ll want to stay away from weekends and high traffic areas. This helps avoid dealing with an undue number of people in and around the venue who are beyond your scope of control (e.g., customers roaming around). Also, be sure to avoid highly sensitive dates, like September 11th. I know that sounds obvious, but I actually had to intervene in a plan by a fire department to conduct a live-action, large-scale smoke & fire drill in a high-profile area on September 11th. Not a good idea.

3. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Prior to the date of your drill, you must communicate clearly and thoroughly what is planned to occur. Certainly, there is a need for some element of “surprise” but failing to let all those who may be alarmed or otherwise impacted by the drill could be a recipe for disaster. That has happened several times in locations large and small and can be avoided by thinking ahead and determining who needs to be in the general “know” to avoid panic. Use paper flyers, high-speed outbound telephone notification systems, e-mails, texts, etc. Have security personnel and/or your management team speak with tenants, teachers, store owners, neighboring building management & security, etc. Also include, of course, any potentially impacted police, fire, EMS and political entities who may not be directly involved in the scenario but who may be contacted should some alarm be raised. You may also want to notify the local media so they can assist in letting people know there is no cause for alarm.

4. Send a reminder. On the day of the drill, follow-up with a high-speed outbound notification to all parties affected. Include signage on A-frames in and around the property letting people know that training is being conducted and stage safety officers in vests addressing any issues that may arise that may require the exercise to be terminated.

5. Debrief and learn. Again, this may seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon for a drill to be executed then simply ended without a plan for a thorough, all-encompassing debrief. Make sure you have a debriefing plan in place so you can identify what went right, spotlight what can be refined and learn from what may have gone wrong.

Have a solid plan for where and when you are going to meet to debrief and pre-determine who is going to run the session and how it will flow. Include all the key entities involved – police, fire, EMS, role players, affected civilians, etc. What did they see? How do they think it went? What challenges did they encounter and what suggestions do they have for improvement?

Have a plan for taking notes and for sharing them. The debrief is one of the most critical parts of a training drill. Leverage its power. It can save lives.


For more on this critical topic, be sure to check out Calibre Press’s popular course, “Active Threat Incidents: Preparation, Response, and Recovery.” Developed as a full-circle program, this two-day class is designed to share practical, proven strategies that will arm all first responders with the information, foresight, and skills they need to effectively confront and terminate an active threat situation.