Situational awareness in the field is critical to employee and public safety. This training screen asks MnDOT employees to click on hot spots to discover potential threats.
MN DOT Situational awareness in the field is critical to employee and public safety. This training screen asks MnDOT employees to click on hot spots to discover potential threats.

When a San Bernardino County, Calif., health inspector attacked coworkers at a December 2015 department event, some of the 80 attendees thought it was just another active shooter drill. But within minutes, two attackers shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others. Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, fired more than 100 bullets before they fled in a rented sport utility vehicle. They were killed four hours later in a police chase.

In the face of such horrific events, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been worse. But during the shooting, many terrified attendees escaped the room or hid under tables or in bathrooms and closets as trained under the county’s preparedness program. Their actions saved lives, but created other complications.

The first responders, who came from an array of city and county agencies, had regularly trained and drilled together to prepare for just such a situation. All told, responders included about 300 officers and agents from city, county, state, and federal agencies, including the FBI, California Highway Patrol, and Los Angeles Police Department Counterterrorism unit.

“One big lesson was how partnerships contributed to our ability to respond that day,” says San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford. “Law enforcement, fire, and hospital personnel had trained frequently with the SWAT team and knew exactly how to work together. It’s important to establish these relationships.”

Immediate aftermath

Rutherford was one of two county board members on the ground that day. The three other supervisors were at a conference in northern California. The sheriff sent a plane to bring them back and that evening they began to tackle the difficult questions: Should we lock down the county? What’s needed next and how will we pay for it? And the unspeakable but urgent, Who were the fatalities?

The rented banquet room where the victims had fallen was closed off as the bomb squad detonated unexploded pipe bombs and the response team combed for evidence amid damage done by fire sprinklers. This delayed entry by the coroner and other officials, and as the evening wore on senior staff found themselves trying to account for everyone in attendance.

In an emotionally harrowing effort, “people were going through employee lists, trying to reconstruct who was sitting where, and calling family members to ask if employees had arrived home,” says Rutherford. “Many people couldn’t be reached because they ran out and left their cell phones behind.”

She says it was a “sad lesson” to learn how inadequate employees’ emergency contact information was, a common problem for any organization.

“Some people refuse to provide information or even deliberately provide incorrect information because they don’t want the government to have it,” she says.

More often, the information is simply outdated. “We called one contact listed as a spouse who told us they had been divorced eight years,” says Rutherford. “And people frequently change their cell phone numbers.”

The county has since made verification of employee emergency information a requirement as part of the annual benefits enrollment process.

Meanwhile that day, the board looked into immediately closing all county facilities to protect them from subsequent attack.

“We learned we literally can’t do that,” says Rutherford. For example, the state Supreme Court justice is the only one with authority to close the courts. “It was late that night when we contacted her.”

The board also wanted to close the county recorder’s office, a mile from the crime scene, but state law requires county recorders to be available during business hours. They decided to lock the doors and station a guard to let people in one at a time and set up a backup office at another location. Thousands of transactions were recorded within 48 hours of the attack.

Board supervisors determined the county would need to improve its reverse notification system to keep employees informed of developments such as status of the buildings they work in.

“As a society we’ve been conditioned to expect automatic updates,” says Rutherford. But in emergency situations, accurate information is hard to gather and disseminate. “The county has 22,000 employees working in 50 departments over 20,000 square miles.”

Ongoing support

As time passed, county managers continued exploring ways to support employees physically or psychologically affected by the tragedy. Counseling is available and actively offered whenever a disturbing incident hits the news. Even now, a year and a half later, some employees are unable to return to work.

In the aftermath, volunteers emerged from every corner. Public health inspectors arrived from the state and other counties to help on the job. Retirees showed up asking how they could help.

Restaurants that had posted health inspection cards signed by Farook removed them within two days, says Rutherford, “so no one had to look at his signature.”

An unanticipated challenge occurred when some injured employees filed workers compensation claims. “The program’s designed to deal with common workplace injuries, but medical treatment [related to the shooting] involved nonstandard procedures that couldn’t be processed the same way,” says Rutherford.

Governments are more accustomed to dealing with natural disasters, she adds. “We know how to document costs for those, but when it comes to workplace incidents or terrorist acts, the law is unsettled. We were fortunate to get a lot of reimbursement.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County, which enabled the state to provide health inspectors and other forms of assistance.

Active shooter triggers

For several days, the motivation for the attack was unclear and there was a sense of waiting for the other shoe to fall. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with – workplace violence, an attack on the county, or even a conspiracy,” says Rutherford.

Four days later, President Obama deemed the shooting an act of terrorism. The FBI learned the attackers were homegrown violent extremists inspired by foreign terrorist groups, though not directed by such groups and not part of any terrorist cell or network.

However, the active shooter profile can take other forms. An active shooter is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The assailant may be a constituent or supplier with an axe to grind, someone with a personal vendetta against an employee, or a robber having no other connection with the workplace.

Curbing workplace violence

The MnDOT training module shares workplace violence statistics and urges employees to report incidents.
MN DOT The MnDOT training module shares workplace violence statistics and urges employees to report incidents.

Minnesota DOT (MnDOT)’s active shooter preparedness program encompasses all forms of workplace violence, defined as “any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment.” Examples range from pranks and inappropriate language to arson and murder.

Threats occur within the offices, truck stations, and the field. Occasionally they come from an external party, but usually from employees.

“Most are aimed at individuals or may be [a statement such as] ‘I could shoot this place up,’” says Karin van Dyck, human resources director and head of MnDOT’s Violent Incident Advisory Team (VIAT). “It may be said in jest but is taken very seriously. What human resources considers an incident is often considered minor in an employee’s eyes.”

That’s probably why only about 25% of such incidents are reported, rather than fear of repercussions, she adds.

Threat assessments typically involve a small group representing human resources, safety, labor relations and, if needed, the employee assistance program. Following a critical incident, such as a fatal accident or suicide, counseling and debriefing are provided for those involved. Depending on the behavior, the incident may trigger an investigation and disciplinary action.

“Employees have made threats serious enough to place them on investigatory leave, with a subsequent disciplinary action, including discharge,” says van Dyck. In such cases, the investigation might examine factors such as social media posts, court records, and behavioral changes. A safety plan would be implemented as needed.

Mandatory training for the agency’s 5,000 employees includes an e-learning module and practice drills. Goals are to establish a survival mindset and teach tools to reduce panic, improve response, and decrease fatalities. To address active shooter preparedness, MnDOT hired a consultant to lead tabletop exercises including what-if scenarios.

“This exercise identified gaps that we need to address before doing a full-blown drill,” says van Dyck. “We’re in the process of addressing these gaps and identifying resources that would be needed for a drill.”

MnDOT also is developing a classroom program, Verbal De-escalation in Tense Situations with Emotionally Charged Individuals, intended for personnel who deal with the public.

The program has evolved since its 1995 inception and is being restructured to emphasize communications, formal protocols, and process guidance. VIAT will become “Violent Incident Awareness Taskforce” and its former advisory role will fall to a Threat Assessment Team and Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

Over the years, says van Dyck, “our view of violence has shifted.” For example, unsavory comments that once might have been dismissed may now put someone on the radar. “We see more need to help managers and supervisors create safety plans. Our need for training has also increased, particularly around active shooters and de-escalation of threats.”

The latest FBI statistics, issued last year, bear out these observations. Active shooter incidents in the U.S. average 19 per year, rising steadily from eight incidents per year from 2000 to 2008.

Hardening facilities

Ten percent of these incidents occur on government property. Public works is vulnerable because of the many and dispersed facilities departments maintain—offices, parks, open areas, jobsites—and interactions with a broad constituency.

Given these statistics, “the need for improving safety measures in government facilities has come to the forefront,” says Patrick Stock, public works facilities supervisor for the City of Ventura, Calif., 125 miles west of San Bernardino. Stock has made facility safety and security his mission in his 10-year tenure with the city. He collaborates with the police and fire departments to assess public facilities for vulnerability, usage, hours of operation, points of entry, and evacuation routes. Together, they evaluate the need for access control, surveillance cameras, security guard services, and other defenses.

The city’s used automated access control in many facilities for at least 13 years. Employees must wear readily visible ID badges and use key fobs to enter the buildings. Many interior office areas inaccessible to the public also are behind access-controlled doors. The city performs criminal background checks on employees and contractors who will access critical facilities. An active list of employees and their credentials is coordinated among the police, facilities, and human resources departments.

The police department monitors the citywide security system, which is on a standardized network platform. The level of security at any given facility depends on the services provided.

“We look at the potential interaction with the general public,” says Stock. For example, additional security might go to offices involved in resolving complaints or planning projects where outcomes might not meet expectations.

One facility requiring multiple levels of security is the century-old city hall. Some areas must be open to the public with ADA access during business hours. Other areas within the building, such as the treasury department, are tightly secured. Retrofitting the historic landmark with a state-of-the-art system proved a challenge; the original Italian marble, architectural wood paneling, and vintage doors and door frames all had to be preserved. The maintenance yard once provided an easy retreat for vandals and scofflaws but is now completely gated with automated access control and surveillance cameras.

The most recent project in the ongoing evaluation process was an upgrade to the 70-year-old West Park Community Center, which hosts school children after hours. Enhancements included cameras that also monitor an elementary school next door.

Seeking peace of mind

Measures such as panic button alert systems and ballistic-rated panels are installed in public offices such as the building department permit counter. The panic buttons silently notify the police command center, which dispatches officers and monitors an interactive map.

The city hasn’t had any serious incidents, but there have been occasional scares such as an agitated constituent. Panic buttons were activated and police response was immediate. Subjects were briefly detained and questioned but no further action was needed.

“The panic button system does provide a certain feeling of enhanced security,” Stock says. However, in training sessions police personnel encourage people to call 911 so dispatchers can obtain details such as perpetrator description and location.

Most security funding comes through the budget planning process with each city department responsible for upgrades to its employee areas. Stock’s facilities budget covers collective resources such as cameras and maintenance of the emergency reporting system.

Grants are another funding resource. For example, the police department obtained funding through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Grant Program to install security fencing and security gates around headquarters.

Back in San Bernardino, a thorough security review of all buildings is at the top of the priority list, “Not all offices require badge access, and we’re expanding those controls now,” says Rutherford. She points out, however, that Farook was an employee with a badge who had access to controlled areas.

All of these measures must be taken with the full understanding that, as Rutherford puts it, “You can do everything to be as prepared as you can be and evil will find a way.”