Consider Using Active Shooter Incidents as a Gateway Drug to Improve Continuity Awareness

The challenges of gaining traction for business continuity and emergency preparedness programs are well known in our industry. In this article, we raise the idea of using an event like an active shooter incident to express the value of these programs. The key points in the article are:

  • People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.

  • Using the example of an active shooter can build awareness and knowledge of other emergencies.

  • Storytelling is the most powerful tool in captivating an audience and getting them to remember.


Getting stakeholders to express more than a passing interest in emergency preparedness is a challenge for business continuity professionals. Many of us find our warnings fall on deaf ears and well-established certifications & education programs in the field start with a whole section on simply justifying the reason for the certification’s existence. There is a pervasive sense that emergency preparedness professionals need to demonstrate continuity programs are valuable enough to fund and this is most often done by focusing on the liability and legal consequences of not having a program. Sadly, the bottom line is that disaster preparedness is seen as “cute”, but its value to the organization is usually not recognized and is ignored until we reach the response phase.

The realities of being ignored have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While North America had plenty of warning and data, decision makers across different spheres did not take heed nor take the necessary precautions until it was too late, refusing even to follow examples from countries such as Finland, Liberia, New Zealand, Senegal, South Korea, Taiwan, and Uganda that were successful in mitigating the impacts of the virus. And even now in the response phase, we seem to be in a perpetual “yo-yo” situation, with many states and provinces conducting non-committal “soft lockdowns” that do drive case numbers down but then opening up again and seeing numbers soar. A case in point is Newfoundland, which recently saw 42 days of no cases disrupted due to underestimating the virus and reopening too soon.

The question is: How do we get people actively invested in emergency management and drive the urgency to start building awareness?

One way is to look to the past, identifying what safety campaigns have been successful, and then building on the examples of these campaigns. For example, today we wear seatbelts as a safety precaution, we are comfortable with fire drills, and many people will remember the “Stop, Drop and Roll” memory tool from fire programs established in elementary school. These behaviours are engrained in the minds of most North American-raised civilians.

A common element behind the success of these safety campaigns is an easy to grasp solution to a threat that everyone can relate to. Many people have, or know someone who has, been in a car crash and everyone knows the consequences of fire; the imagery is visceral, and the solution is simple. Juxtapose this with the public reaction to COVID-19 where, in the United States at least, the daily death toll sometimes surpasses all the lives lost on 9/11 and where, as of February 19, 2021, more have died from the virus than U.S. soldiers died in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined . Perhaps it is the invisibility of the virus and the lack of visceral consequences that makes it so difficult to understand the danger.

Some success in driving a sense of urgency and building awareness for Risk Management and Business Continuity has come after active shooter incidents. As seen after the events in Christchurch, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Portapique, Quebec City, Sandy Hook, and Sutherland Springs the public’s interest in prevention and preparedness is keen. Eyes widen in remembrance of such terrible events and the strong emotional connection is undeniable. These events, as tragic as they are, can be leveraged to demonstrate the urgency of your program to the public and corporate decision-makers; texts are quickly answered, meetings become easier to book, and people pay attention with wide ears and unbelievable levels of interest.

However, there is only a small window of public interest before other daily events take over and it’s important to use this opportunity to build as much awareness as possible and provide education that can be applied to other emergencies.

One way of building awareness is by sharing principles behind the emergency management of an active shooter event that correlate to other successful emergency responses. A principle like the usage of memory tools such as “Run, Hide, Defend” (or “Run, Hide, Fight” in the United States), can raise awareness of a set of actions people can take to protect themselves. Linguistically similar to the “Stop, Drop and Roll” memory tool used by fire departments, “Run, Hide, Defend” is easy to understand and likely to be remembered even during the adrenaline rush of an emergency. A similar principle comes from Sgt. Douglas Ritchie (retired) of the York Regional Police Emergency Management Unit, who developed the idea of applying “evasion, concealment, and confrontation” to a variety of situations. For example, in response to a fire, an individual can run away (evade), place barricades to contain the spread of the fire (conceal) or take active measures to fight the fire with an extinguisher (confront). While these principles do not apply evenly to all crises, the underlying concepts help civilians understand that they are not powerless in such situations and provide them a way of making decisions when things seem hopeless.

When providing education to people, it helps to use storytelling to provide examples of similar situations. Stories such as how Rick Rescorla in New York used clear emergency communication and saved 2,687 people on 9/11, how one man holding a credit card reader stopped the Christchurch shooter, or how a 65-year-old man tackled a heavily armed shooter in a Norway mosque. These stories inspire people and demonstrate that they too, can make a difference. Theories are great but hearing stories of real-life events is what will stick in people’s minds; facts tell, stories sell.

By leveraging active shooter events you can build awareness of emergency management principles and awareness of the tools that can be applied to emergencies. A first aid kit and training courses that are set up as precautions for an active shooter attack will also be useful in any medical emergency. Evacuation and lockdown procedures to be used during a shooting are also applicable to fires or other natural hazards.

Disaster preparedness is far more than “cute”; it is vital to an organization’s survival.

Author: Younus Imam Principal Consultant