A Lesson from South Carolina: The Importance of Safety Drills

All eyes were on South Carolina for a few hours on Wednesday as the first words of another school shooting spread across the Internet. But attention quickly faded as details became clear: two children and a teacher wounded, the teenage subject already in custody.

That the incident didn’t linger longer on the national stage is a sad testament to how routine school shootings have become. If there are not “enough” deaths, news like the shooting at Townville Elementary barely makes a blip on our collective radar.

But we can all learn a lot from the teachers, administrators and first responders in that small South Carolina town, who acted quickly and selflessly to protect students and subdue the shooter, who had allegedly shot and killed his father just prior to crashing a pickup truck through the fence outside the school.

Some media reports mentioned that the school had practiced safety drills, but the mention was glossed over. Their advance preparation enabled them to respond appropriately to the incident – and once again underscored the twin mandates of having a plan and then practicing.

The difference in this incident, though, was that the shooter struck outside the school. The playground is a much different situation than the classroom – or a football field or an assembly. We tell our clients that it’s important to think through all the situations where students and teachers gather and prepare to deal with those scenarios.

It’s critical to understand the options available in an active shooter situation like Townville Elementary faced. There are three:

  • Secure: Get behind a locked door or some other type of cover or concealment
  • Evacuate: Get away from the area as quickly as possible
  • Confront: Challenge the threat directly

In the case of Townville Elementary, teachers performed a reverse evacuation, getting students inside as quickly as possible. The volunteer firefighter tackled and restrained the shooter before he could follow everyone indoors.

Training and muscle memory clearly kicked in for both the teachers and the first responders, who quickly assessed the situation and chose the best options available to them. Had they not done so, it’s possible the situation would have escalated – and the headlines with Townville Elementary would continue to haunt us for days.

Op-Ed: Building Safety Standards Must Take on Same Significance as Fire Codes

Just this month, we have again watched the disturbing images of innocent people dealing with the trauma of an active shooter situation.

The terrible events in Orlando remind us once again of the current realities in our society. And another shooting incident earlier this month on the UCLA campus reminded me, as a law enforcement and security expert, how much more progress we need to make to properly prepare for these situations.

In the UCLA incident, students and staff members used any objects they could find – desks, chairs, belts – in makeshift attempts to barricade themselves in rooms with doors that do not lock.

It is distressing that those trying to get out of harm’s way were left to try to jury-rig barricades in an active shooter situation. That is not reflective of the world we live in given what happened at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and now Orlando.

I believe strongly that we need to adjust our thinking on security planning so that we are addressing a 21st Century problem with 21st Century know-how and safety features. The time has come to establish building safety standards, backed up by law enforcement inspections, much in the same way we now mandate fire codes and inspections.

The UCLA situation points to a fundamental problem with many emergency plans at schools and other public buildings and institutions – the procedures often do not fit the building’s features.

We regularly see security preparations that call for a lockdown in the event of an active shooter. But the daycare, school or office is often filled with doors that do not lock – just as we saw in those UCLA classrooms. During a threat, it does you no good to have a plan that calls for locking doors when those features do not exist. A threat is not the time to find out the safety plan and safety features do not match.

Security plans must take into account how a building is configured. For instance, if doors don’t lock and open out – some of which we saw at UCLA – then experts need to devise a plan that takes those features into account. Security experts can work around the nuances of a building but the situation needs an honest assessment.

We also increasingly find that considerations for fire prevention and safety are often at odds with considerations for security. In the simplest terms, during a fire, officials want people to get out. During a threat, though, those in law enforcement often want you to stay in place.

Make no mistake, our fellow public safety colleagues in fire departments have done a superb job instituting safety features into public buildings and imprinting fire safety onto our collective psyches. If you’re in a building the fire prevention features are apparent everywhere – fire extinguishers, illuminated “exit signs” and sprinkler systems are just a few examples.

But the time has come for us to put as much thought and practice into security measures for an active shooter as we have for fire risks. We need to address an issue that is part of our lives today and statistically presents more of a risk than other threats, including fires.

If you think about it, fire codes have evolved through the decades to address changing times and safety needs to the point where we have the effectiveness we see today. Security plans are lagging and need to follow suit to catch up with the times. We must find a way to ensure fire codes can co-exist with modern-day security needs.

That starts with adjusting our thinking on active shooter preparations to ensure we aren’t thwarted by the very mechanisms that are supposed to protect us. We need strong standards and good law enforcement oversight for safe buildings. In 2016, we can’t have traumatized people trying to come up with barricades on the fly because they can’t protect themselves from a shooter.

We owe it to our children and to ourselves to make sure proper security measures and a plan are as prevalent as fire extinguishers.

About Jason Russell: Jason Russell is the founder, president and CEO for Secure Education Consultants, a Michigan-based firm that specializes in security plans for schools, child care facilities and businesses across the country. Russell is a former special agent for the U.S. Secret Service, where he worked on protective and investigative assignments, as well as protecting the current president and vice president and former presidents. He leads a team of former Secret Service agents who help clients with security assessments and emergency plans. He can be reached at jason.russell@secureed.com.

Orlando Shooting

Jason Russell, president and founder of Secure Education Consultants, joins WZZM 13 to discuss the mass shooting in Orlando.  Watch the interview on wzzm.com