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.