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Panic Alarms Alone Can’t Sufficiently Address the Active Shooter Threat

December 4th, 2023 by Guest Communications

Written by: Jeffrey D. Zwirn – November 16, 2023

Editor’s note: This article was originally featured in Campus Safety sister publication Security Sales & Integration. Although it is written for security technology integrators who install panic alarm and mobile duress systems, much of this information applies to school, college, and hospital end users considering the adoption of this type of technology.

Please note that the views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety. Additionally, this article has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

If an organization knew tonight that their premises was going to be targeted by an active shooter the very next day, they would do everything in their power to protect all persons who occupy the building and others who planned on being inside and/or coming to the building.

Problematically, this is the mindset that [at-risk] organizations have to recognize now through relying upon alarm and security professionals in order to create momentum for designing and building the right physical and electronic security counter-measures.

At the same time, the active shooter risk needs to be countered by armed and trained security who need to be located at the premises because next to the priority of early detection of an active shooter is how much time it takes for armed personnel to respond. How much time it takes to locate the active shooter and neutralize the threat must also be considered.

Against the foregoing backdrop, prior to the epidemic of active shooter incidents happening across the country and around the world, the alarm and central station industry may not have recognized the myriad of increased risks they face because they are responsible for the design, installation, placement, and monitoring of panic alarm systems.

However, for those of you who are still providing these services, things need to change as to the criticality, vulnerabilities, and risks associated with panic alarm systems being recommended, installed, and monitored by your company. It is more likely than not that the location of where the system is being installed is at risk of suffering an active shooter incident.

In Active Shooter Events, Panic Alarms Have Limitations

Even if the panic alarm system works as intended, and in accordance with nationally recognized industry standards and best practices by notifying the central station and police are dispatched to the scene, persons can still be seriously injured and/or killed because most active shooters are finished within 5 minutes.

Having said that, it must be understood that a panic alarm system in and of itself is not sufficient to fully protect all people on any premises during an active shooter event.

Accordingly, any alarm company that does not provide written warnings upfront and have them acknowledged by the customer (in writing) who wants to have a panic alarm system installed in their premises is at an increased risk of liability that is already present.

Notably, this disclaimer language needs to be drafted by legal counsel who is familiar with alarm company liability.

Accordingly, the contractual agreement needs to be written by specialists and all written warnings must be acknowledged by responsible parties.

In sum, there should be no question whatsoever that, before anything is recommended, installed and monitored by an alarm company, the subscriber was made fully aware of the other things that need to be integrated into the protection strategies to help address these dangers.

Despite the fact that alarm contractors do not offer these services, educating customers, in my opinion, is a way to help amplify that if any company believes that the mere installation of a panic alarm system is going to make a difference, without other protection strategies in place, they are ill-informed.

Adopt Many Methodologies to Improve Campus Security

Coming full circle, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to address the active shooter threat. We do not have one thing in the alarm and security industry that can neutralize it.

With this in mind, the best protection strategies in my opinion employ a multitude of differing methodologies that include creating layers of security, target hardening, and a professionally trained armed force at the premises with appropriate firepower.

Even if the panic button(s) are pressed in the incipient stages of an active shooter emergency, without appropriate physical security layering and other security measures in place, including but not limited to the use of specially trained armed guards, persons in the school and surrounding areas can still be seriously injured and/or killed.

An emergency panic alarm system can only notify the police, persons and security on campus and initiate other security measures that include among other things the locking of interior doors and the activation of audible and/or visual notification appliances.

To the extent that customers are looking for the emergency panic alarm system to provide them with any guarantees, those guarantees can’t be provided by a panic alarm system. Additionally, there are many unknown factors and variables that no person or system can control, and/or foresee, such as:

  • The type(s) of weapons the perpetrator uses
  • How many perpetrators are involved
  • The ability to gain entry or be delayed access into the premises through robust physical security
  • Where the students in the school or others on a university or healthcare campus are located during the attack
  • The training the occupants have received in active shooter survival and/or escape
  • If there is armed security at the campus
  • How long it takes for the police to respond
  • How many police officers respond, and
  • How effective the police can be to quickly reach the active shooter and neutralize this threat.

SWAT team response is yet another factor in this analysis and so are the police having a floor plan so that they know the layout of the school.

Unfortunately, and despite planning, there are many variables that alarm, and security professionals have to continually focus on as the rise of active shooters continues with their murderous attacks.

In doing so, we can help detect and delay the perpetrator much more effectively, but the correlation with helping to accomplish this task and creating a tangible impact requires a significant financial investment by the customer so that the proper methodologies can be funded. Without such support, the countermeasures cannot be provided, nor can they be sustained.

Given that, the best time for intervention is now, but unfortunately the premises that are at the most risk have limited budgets, which is yet another factor in their decision-making process.

While some believe that “something is better than nothing,” they need to think again because the active shooter risk needs to be met head-on with the strongest physical and electronic security available in combination with robust countermeasures that must include an on-site properly armed and trained security staff.

It is important to note that when I say, “properly armed,” I am focusing in on the all-too-often (limited fire power) circumstances, whereby security is outgunned by the active shooter.

In sum, the use of handguns by security to try to stop an active shooter with an AK-47 or something similar to that, has to change now because not doing so undermines the very reason for having on-site security.

Jeffrey D. Zwirn, CPP, CFPS, CFE, FACFEI, CHS-IV, SET, CCI, FASI&T, MBAT, writes Security Sales & Integration’s “Security Science” column. He is also president of IDS Research and Development, an alarm and security consultation, expert witness and training authority providing nationwide services on all issues related to alarm and security matters. He can be reached at (201) 287-0900.

This article is shared with consent from Campus Safety – If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for Campus Safety’s FREE digital newsletters!

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