Another senseless tragedy, another violent act, countless lives changed forever, and a society left with more questions than answers―this is the reality of the world we live in today. While one could argue these threats are nothing new to emergency management practitioners, the numbers don’t lie. Mass violence is on the rise with no signs of slowing. In 2018 alone, the FBI designated 27 shootings in 2018 as active shooter incidents. As a result of those attacks, 85 people lost their lives, and 128 more suffered injuries.
As leaders in our field, we do not have the luxury of burying our head in the sand. Nor should we. While much of our work centers around the mitigation, response, and recovery activities integral to everyday operations, it stands to reason most of our strategies are reactionary in nature. They are dependent on “if-this-then-that” plans.
However, while the rest of the country seeks to make sense of these tragedies and find closure, those of us on the inside must take a long hard look at the plans and procedures we have in place to protect our staff, our organizations, and our communities.
We are in a unique position. And we are far from powerless. It’s time to get back to basics and shift our sights towards prevention and preparedness. With that in mind, let’s examine one of the most highly effective, but often underutilized techniques we have at our disposal: threat assessments.
Threat assessments are a vital component of ensuring your organization’s safety and security and, thus, are an important part of your emergency management plans. As opposed to threat management that aims to defuse and resolve ongoing incidents, threat assessments force us to look inward and draw upon our abilities and collective knowledge to prevent an attack from ever occurring. The process is evolutionary and non-linear. Even with all the industry guidelines, best practices, and behavioral studies, we must understand, it’s impossible to predict every variable in a high-risk situation.
In truth, there are no precise formulas or fail-safe methods we can deploy to guarantee success every time. Threats are dynamic by nature. We can only plan for and control so much, and at best, we may never truly know the extent of our effectiveness.
That said, the field of Behavioral Science has proven time and time again―people don’t just snap. There are always indicators present. The Department of Homeland Security describes these indicators as warning signs along ‘The Pathway to Violence.’ As security professionals, we know this model well. We also know it’s our job to notice these warning signs and take preventative measures to ensure that not only we are collecting the appropriate data but also acting on all the information presented to us―effectively, and without bias.
But where do we find this data? And how do we align it with our organizational goals?
The answer lies with documentation and reporting practices.
In fact, the deepest insights can come directly from the information we collect through our daily interactions and observances. By combing through our observation logs, examining our incident reports, and engaging in proactive discussions, we can utilize predictive analysis to identify possible triggers, map escalation paths and decide on countermeasures to proactively take charge of issues before they become incidents.
What do we mean by that?
Let’s look at some examples of how everyday documentation can serve as waypoints for effective threat assessments.
Written observations and real-time alerts enable us to forge alliances among team members and bridge communication barriers, such as location and time.
For example, if a member of the prior tour notices something out of the ordinary, such as a suspicious person or vehicle, they can log the events into the computer, and effectively pass that information along to the next team via real-time alerts or historical duty logs.
Not only does this practice encourage our staff members to stay vigilant, but it also ensures critical details aren't lost or omitted during hurried tour debriefings. And while suspicious activity alone isn’t a clear indication of a problem, a history of the same occurrence can shed light on a possible pattern and act as a reminder to investigate further.
As an added benefit, observation logs can help us identify and isolate weak points in our facilities. If over time, we notice a history of events occurring at the same location, or during a particular shift, we can adjust our perimeters and reallocate resources to address possible holes in security.
Whereas observation deals with the visual, clear, and concise incident reports can help our teams map out a direct view into the “who” and “why” of a potential situation. By taking a step back from the emotional and sometimes inferential viewpoints of an altercation or threat, incident reports allow us to evaluate each case through the objective lens of data. In focusing on the known, we can assess details such as who reported the incident, the reporting party’s motivation for coming forward, when the situation occurred and what else might have been going on at the time.
At the same time, we can also look at critical elements such as a person of interest’s history, behavioral patterns, possible stressors, and whether or not they’ve been involved in similar occurrences. Then once we’ve completed our initial assessment, we can better determine if intervention is needed and respond with the appropriate action.
Aside from helping decide on next steps, proper documentation can also ensure the entire process remains transparent and fair. In the case of legal proceedings or questions regarding compliance, investigative reports provide our organization with concrete audit trails and iron-clad proof of non-discriminatory actions.
Lastly, our internal documents can help us cultivate organizational awareness. While tabletop exercises and time-worn scenarios are a step in the right direction, drills based on lessons learned can elevate training to an entirely new level.
When we use organizational data as the focus of our training, it enhances comprehension and enables us to construct meaningful conversations around the trends and events that are top-of-mind for senior leaders and stakeholders. And while this strategy may seem a little outside the norm, it’s important to remember, regardless of title or position, emergency preparedness falls on everyone’s shoulders.
At the very minimum, we must ensure we are arming our staff with the right combination of tools, training, and empowerment to help us create safer environments and higher levels of awareness.
Looking toward the future, the need for preventative action will only grow stronger. While technology has surpassed what we’ve ever thought possible and artificial intelligence grows smarter every day, it’s safe to say we’ve yet to see a machine or computer algorithm that can replace the observation skills and sheer willpower of the human brain. As emergency managers and security professionals, we must ensure we never underscore the value of proactively assessing threats. It’s up to us now.
About Jim Schumann
JIM SCHUMANN, Midwest Business Development Manager at Omnigo Software, has 27 years of experience as a Director in the security and public safety field. His background includes roles in campus security and safety, property management security, and security consulting as well as conducting interrogations and investigations. Jim also taught law enforcement and security for 21 years as an adjunct faculty member at St. Cloud University, where he received his B.A. in Political Science/Criminal Justice and M.S. in Criminal Justice Administration.