Crisis Management

Plan to Survive

Employers are still slow to take the necessary steps to ensure that their organizations are prepared for violence.
By: | January 25, 2016 • 11 min read

You’re at your desk, engrossed in a report. From somewhere on the other side of the building, you hear a loud muffled noise. Furniture-moving mishap? Backfiring car? It barely registers in your mind until you hear it again.

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Then you hear screams. The icy grip of fear tightens your chest. There’s a shooter in the building.

Your vision blurs for a moment as you try to decide in that split second what to do next. Fifteen minutes from now, you will either be a survivor, or you will be a statistic.

Armed killing sprees have long been a troubling fact of life in the U.S. and elsewhere. As far back as August 1966, Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower of the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31.

The massacre shocked and horrified the world in 1966. But in 2016, our capacity for shock has been dulled by the increasing frequency of the type of violence we now commonly refer to as active shooter incidents.

In 2015, there were 330 incidents in the U.S. in which four or more people were shot or killed using firearms, resulting in 367 deaths and 1,317 injuries. Incidents at schools, universities and public spaces took up most of the media attention until December, when an employee of the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., left work and returned with his wife and a small arsenal of firearms. Fourteen people were killed, and 22 were wounded. Suddenly employers that gave workplace violence only a passing thought began asking “What if it had happened here?”

The question is long overdue. The FBI reports that 45 percent of active shooter incidents occur at places of business, making them the most common target for these attacks.

Be Proactive

There are multiple categories of active shooter or other workplace violence situations. The San Bernardino shooters are alleged to have had ties to terrorist factions, but acts of political terrorism in the workplace are rare. Acts perpetrated by unstable individuals are far more common, as are domestic violence incidents.

active shooter chartWithout question, there are situations where a target is chosen at random, and there is absolutely no way an employer could have seen it coming. But more often there are signs or signals along the way — red flags, both subtle and obvious, that were brushed off or even deliberately ignored out of a reluctance to create conflict. That is a mindset that desperately needs to change, say experts.

“Many of the incidents that we see could have been avoided because there were clear precursors,” said Sean Ahrens, Aon Global Risk Consulting’s Security Consulting practice leader. He adds that “incidents where there’s a straw that broke the camel’s back are happening more and more.”

The culture of silence happens for a variety of reasons. Coworkers don’t speak up for fear they’ll be branded as troublemakers. Employers worry they will be accused of defamation or discrimination if they take a hasty action against an employee.

In the well-intentioned quest to create a solid, documented case for taking action, sometimes employers wait too long. The results can be tragic.

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Experts agreed that risk managers must work to cultivate a “see something, say something” culture. To increase the chance of being able to identify a burgeoning threat, experts strongly advise employers to have a means in place for employees to report concerns anonymously.

Sean Ahrens, security consulting practice leader, Aon Global Risk Consulting

Sean Ahrens, security consulting practice leader, Aon Global Risk Consulting

“Employers should afford as many ways as possible to communicate this information,” said Ahrens. That could an online email form, an anonymous hotline, a third-party hotline, or whatever methods make the most sense for the organization.

From there, an internal threat assessment team can gather further intelligence and decide how to proceed or attempt to de-escalate the situation. Simply terminating an at-risk employee isn’t necessarily the smart play, and could actually make things worse. Crisis management experts can be a useful resource for employers working to avoid a misstep.

The Survival Plan

The bottom line for risk management is that there is no iron-clad means to eliminate the risk that your workplace will experience an active shooter event. Even the best preventative measures have to be backed up by a solid emergency plan paired with response protocols spelling out what needs to happen during an event.

Communication is the first line of defense. A clear warning can give everyone out of the line of fire a better chance of evacuating safely. The simplest method is using overhead audio such as a P.A. system.

“Don’t use codes, just plain English,” said Ahrens. Be straightforward: “There’s an aggressor in the building near the Northwest stairwell. We’ll provide updates when available. Evacuate now if you can, or shelter in place.” Then provide continuous updates, he said.

Other environments may require additional measures. A noisy manufacturing floor or warehouse, for example, may need to use a strobe light to alert workers to turn off machines so that they can hear the emergency message.

What happens after the warning is broadcast will likely make the difference between life or death, which is why failure to train employees is not a valid option.

Michelle Colosimo, director, Black Swan Solutions

Michelle Colosimo, director, Black Swan Solutions

“Yes, you have to call 911,” said Michelle Colosimo, director of Black Swan Solutions, “but look how quickly these events can [unfold]. You now need to leverage your own employees to make sure that they’re doing the right things to help keep themselves safe.”

In 2012, the City of Houston produced a 6-minute video called “Run. Hide. Fight.,” funded by the Department of Homeland Security. The video has become the standard training model endorsed by the FBI and DHS for teaching civilians how to protect themselves and others around them.

Other training models have gained traction, such as “Avoid, Deny, Defend,” but most have same underlying message at their core:

    * Escape if you can do so safely
    * If not, then get to a location that can be locked or barricaded, if possible
    * Fight back as a last resort, using any improvised weapon within reach

“You don’t have a means in place to be able to take down that gunman,” said Colosimo, “nor do you want to be encouraging employees to try to take down that

gunman. So what are you doing to help educate and train them? Because it’s really up to the employee to make the right decisions.”

Some risk managers may find upper management squeamish about the phrase “active shooter training,” because their perceptions have been shaped by stories in the news about unannounced active shooter drills that traumatized employees.

The goal of drills is not fear, it’s understanding, said Mike Payne, organizational resilience manager at iJET International.

“You want to walk everybody through and talk everybody through what the expectations are, where the decision points are, and how to effectively respond.”

Jay Hart, director, Force Training Institute

Jay Hart, director, Force Training Institute

“This kind of training is very easy to get wrong. It’s very easy for it to be fear-based,” said Jay Hart, director of Force Training Institute. “I’ve noticed that’s what a lot of executives struggle with.”

Those same misperceptions may tempt some to provide training without drills, but that strategy is ill-advised, experts said, because in an emergency, there’s no accounting for how people might respond without a frame of reference.

Most will revert to habit – perhaps attempting to exit the building via their normal exit route, even though that route might be in the line of fire. Others may simply freeze in place.

“When chaos strikes and fear takes over, we’re typically not thinking clearly,” said John Stevens, senior vice president at Keenan.

“I think you’d be amazed by how many people would just sit at their desk and process that information.” agreed Ahrens. Drills help people move past that paralysis by ingraining the right behaviors and turning them into reflex or “muscle memory.”

“[They have to] go through the motions, pretend something is happening — make sure they actually have to take those steps necessary to protect themselves, kind of like a dry run,” said Colosimo.

“Give them all of the tools and the means necessary.”

Drills are important not only to help employees refine their instincts, she added, but also to identify potential flaws in the emergency response plan.

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“It may look great on paper,” she said, but when you actually test it, you may find that some escape routes are obstructed or that a particular route didn’t lead where you thought it would.

Keep in mind that there’s always the potential for some employees to react negatively to whatever training you provide. But Ahrens suggested putting it in perspective.

“You have people saying, ‘I can’t believe you showed us that, that training was over the top.’ But if they remember it during an incident, I think it’s worth the couple of people who don’t like it.”

Far-Reaching Repercussions

While employers are no longer burying their heads in the sand about workplace shooter risks, most are still a long way from being truly prepared.

Mike Payne, iJET International

Mike Payne, iJET International

“People are putting plans in place,” said Colosimo, “and maybe [some are] training people. But when you get to the drill level, specific to active shooters, those numbers are still low. And that’s what needs to change.”

Risk managers may still be struggling to get the buy-in they need, and the problem doesn’t necessarily revolve around the bottom line. Taking steps toward active shooter preparedness can involve some uncomfortable decision making, explained Payne, so “by not having a background in handling those types of risk decisions, it creates a level of denial. And while that is a response, it’s not the preferred one.”

To help the C-suite move past reluctance, experts recommend framing the language in terms of safety as well as presenting the bigger picture and the potential impact to the business.

To help the C-suite move past reluctance, experts recommend framing the language in terms of safety as well as presenting the bigger picture and the potential impact to the business.

While the frequency of an active shooter incident may be less than any other risk that a business faces, stressed Stevens, “the severity and the magnitude of the circumstance become greater than anything else they face because you’re dealing with human lives.”

In the aftermath, the fallout would likely be a tangle of workers’ comp and liability claims related to fatalities and potentially catastrophic injuries. Property damage could be extensive in some situations, and many organizations could face significant business interruption expenses. In addition, questionable security procedures or a failure to respond to threats made prior to an incident may expose employers to a Pandora’s box of employment liability actions.

“In the world we live in now,” said Ahrens, “courts aren’t going to recognize ‘We didn’t see it as a risk.’ ”

As if that wasn’t enough, some businesses could find themselves in violation of workplace violence prevention laws, which are on the books in several states. And many companies may not even be aware of their obligations under OSHA.

While there is no federal workplace violence standard, OSHA asserts that it has the authority to cite employers for failing to take steps to prevent workplace violence under the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to keep workplaces “free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or physical harm.” Courts have generally agreed.

In addition, some say, there are multiple OSHA standards related to emergency action plans and job hazard training that can be interpreted to apply to active shooter training. Those claims have not yet been legally tested. But if the frequency of incidents continues to climb, it may only be a matter of time.

Reputational harm is also a very real possibility — not just among customers, but among vendors. Some companies may choose not to do business with a company it perceives as having lax security measures. Not least of all is the company’s reputation among both existing and prospective employees.

“If you have a workplace where people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to come to work,” said Colosimo. “If they don’t come to work, your productivity is gone.”

Insurance recovery may not be as straightforward as some assume. In the wake of a workplace shooting, business interruption losses may or may not be covered depending upon policy wording.

Workers’ compensation typically will cover costs related to injuries or fatalities that occur at work. However, a targeted, personal attack on an employee with a clear motive that is unrelated to the workplace — such as an attack by a jilted spouse — could negate some workers’ comp claims because it falls outside of the “scope of employment.”

Workers’ comp costs can wreak havoc on employers and insurers. The California death benefit of $250,000 for a single dependent survivor was multiplied many times over for those that died in the San Bernardino attack. But those that survive such an event with catastrophic injuries can potentially cost 10 times that amount over the long-term.

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Until recently, there were no insurance products designed specifically for the risk of gun violence. But Willis Towers Watson now offers active shooter insurance. The coverage was intended for universities, but the company is now fielding inquiries from hotels, hospitals, and other institutions.

The policies, underwritten by Beazley, an affiliate of Lloyd’s, can cover up to $5 million of liability against claims that the company didn’t take the necessary precautions to prevent a mass shooting. It also covers the “on the scene” costs of a shooting incident, as well as any counseling or consulting expenses needed after the event.

What companies need to guard against is being lulled into false assumptions about the scope of the problem. After 911, there was a similar spike in interest in protecting workplaces from violence, noted Colosimo.

But eventually the interest waned, as the media moved on to fresher territory. Her hope is that it won’t require more incidents like San Bernardino to keep risk managers focused on what needs to be done.

“We’ve got to keep the momentum going because this isn’t stopping,” she said. “People have to be prepared.”

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]