The growing business of active shooter countermeasures

"911. What's your emergency?"

"There's someone with a gun at the main entrance to the mall."

--FEMA Institute Emergency Management course on the "Active Shooter"

Our domestic battlefield is evolving as America comes to terms with shooting tragedies like those in Orlando, Florida, and San Bernardino, California, and the drumbeat of far-reaching threats from abroad. Police negotiators who try to talk assailants into freeing hostages, or your hope of survival by taking refuge under desks or in bathroom stalls seem like ancient history, while the 2,500-year old classic "The Art of War" feels like the future.

The Internet is full of governmental advice on how to handle active shooters, and now private industry is also queuing up with programs and products such as ballistic office furniture and trauma kits for when invaders burst through the door.

"We're not in Kansas anymore," said Jim Satterfield, president of Firestorm, a company that advertises itself as "America's Crisis Coach."

All of this will alter the way you eye your fellow employees, the way your employer scrutinizes you and --perhaps -- even the way you look at yourself. Here are some changes that you'll see:

Spying is a dirty word, even though cameras in malls, at traffic lights and on your own computer could be watching your every move. But as the number of shootings has escalated, with 20 active shooter incidents in each of the past two years, so has spying on employees, which now seems less reprehensible and more like the new reality.

This is particularly true because most shooters bear a familiar face. They aren't foreign-inspired terrorists, but instead disgruntled employees, unhappy clients or contractors, or just people with bad attitudes about to go over the edge. That means they can be identified.

"Eighty percent of the time if someone has ill-intent, someone else knows about it, and with social media you can identify the threat," said Satterfield.

To the extent that an employer owns the social media of its company, including employee contact with the public, Firestorm provides "predictive intelligence" and data-mining that can analyze social posts to identify potential problems. Circumstances like the loss of a personal relationship, legal action, humiliation and rejection could be "the triggers for someone on the path to violence," said Satterfield.

Equally important is "humint": short for human intelligence. Is someone making threats or simply acting strange? "Most people don't say something because they don't want to be a tattletale," Satterfield said. "The other problem is they don't know where to report something. You have to have anonymous reporting by texting."

Because of legal risks to the company, this monitoring should be done by a third party or behind an "informational firewall," Firestorm's literature suggested.

This may sound like Big Brother -- and your co-workers -- are watching you. But Satterfield said the goal of companies shouldn't be to fire employees who seem ready to explode. In fact, doing so could set him or her off on a rampage. At best, it only passes the problem along to the next company, such as the on-air shooting of two TV journalists in Roanoke, Virginia, by a former fellow staffer who had a troubled employment history.

"Problems don't go away," said Satterfield, who remembered the case of a diary found in a break room. The threatening pages were copied and then the diary was returned. A middle-aged woman picked it up, was given counseling and still works at the company. It confirms that anyone of any age has to be taken seriously, since at least six active shooters have been women.

Arming employees is seen as another solution by some security firms. Companies like Shield Solution provide training programs for "selected employees" and teachers ever since the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy. According to its website, "It ... offers the best protection should an armed intruder invade your school."

Some educators feel this is mission impossible. "We would be asking ... educators to make a swift transition from teacher to SWAT member," said G.A. Buie, a Kansas principal.

But the idea is gaining traction. In Ohio, more than 600 teachers have applied for training, and it's under consideration in Alabama, California, New Jersey and Oregon.

So does it really help to give workers, even those who are trained, a Glock? Allowing guns in an office or school can be a bad idea, said Firestorm, because guns can seldom be hidden for long, especially from children.

Conversely, Israel, which has experienced ongoing terrorist attacks, encourages its citizens to carry concealed weapons, thwarting many terrorist incidents. Massad Ayoub, a firearms expert who tracks gun violence, noted that mass killers frequently target sites they know are gun-free, such as a Christmas party, bar or house of worship.

But Ayoub also pointed out the drawbacks: not enough practice in using a firearm, the fact that some killers now wear body armor and the possibility of being shot by the police if they arrive on scene while your gun is still drawn. Most shooters, particularly under stress, are inaccurate. Even police hit their target only 18 percent of the time, a study of the New York Police Department showed.

Attacking a shooter is considered the last resort after running and hiding. But firms like Guardian Defense, which offers "Active Shooter Training" for businesses, noted that 60 percent of all incidents end prior to police arrival. In many instances, the shooter commits suicide, but in others, such as the pistol-wielding killer on a Long Island, N.Y., train, bystanders take down the assailant.

A new mentality is forming among security defense firms. With women being taught to fight back against a rapist, some companies advocate the strategy of Jeff Cooper, a World War II marine and firearms expert who penned the "Principles of Self Defense." Cooper advocated "aggressiveness, speed, ruthlessness and surprise." Don't allow your enemy to intimidate you with fear, do what he or she doesn't expect -- such as throwing a chair through a window for a distraction, seize whatever is available and attack without mercy.

Forget everything your parents and teachers told you, Cooper said in his book. "Once a fight starts, there are absolutely no considerations other than winning." An FBI video presents a similar scenario.

When hiding, bear in mind that most office furniture offers little protection. Ballistic Furniture Systems, a company formed by its CEO Jerry Isquith after the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords, offers new or retrofitted furniture with material that will stop a pistol shot. But its highest level of protection -- to stop military rounds -- usually fits only under office paneling.

When running away is an option -- unless you're a school teacher -- remember that you have no obligation to help others, said Guardian Defense. That's also echoed by the FBI: "Encourage others to leave with you, but don't let them slow you down."

Healing comes after the fact, if at all. Companies are inventing products to care for the wounded because emergency responders may be delayed by the shooter or by threats of explosives. The true "first responders" are likely to be employees, teachers, parents or even fast-food workers who are "already on the scene when the crisis begins," said Strategos International, which provides safety and tactical training to schools, churches and corporations.

iACT, which sells "responder bags" that include control wrap to stop bleeding, a respirator, an airway opener and a video on how to use them, said a person can easily "bleed out" in four minutes, and studies show that it could take 40 minutes to an hour for professional help to arrive.

After all active shooter incidents, law enforcement and firms like Firestorm do a "hot wash" to assess what went wrong and what could have been done better. Some of it helps, but it also aids the potential active shooter, who's watching it all through the media.

So the battle is an ongoing equation -- with the graph of casualties trending ever higher.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.