Necessary Reality

Northeast Wisconsin employers prepare for potential threats of violence in the workplace

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch, New North B2B editor

June 2017

When Jamie Harvey went through active-shooter response training, it didn’t feel like training. It felt real.

“It was scary,” she said. “I got shot all over.”

Granted, not by real bullets, but plastic ones from an airsoft gun. They stung just the same and weren’t something the Heart of the Valley Chamber of Commerce marketing director wanted to experience more of.

Trainers from the Kaukauna Police Department led that exercise, which involved hours of acting out active-shooter situations in a workplace setting and using different tactics to respond.

Kaukauna Police Chief John Manion went through the training alongside lay people, too.

“You get shot at as if it were a real incident,” Manion said. “They teach you some things about why you’re going to be going through some of the things you’ll be going through, and then they come back and evaluate how that went.”

Companies and organizations are adding active-shooter response training to their roster of incident-management tools.

“Nobody wants to have to practice these kinds of things, but that’s the world we live in now,” said Lisa Misco, director of student services for Pulaski Community School District.

She was among 50 people who trained earlier this year with police officers from around the state skilled in active-shooter response training.

“It was good for us speaking from a school perspective – we had been taught that if we were concerned, with kids, to lock the door, hide in the corner, and pretend like you’re not there,” Misco said. “What this training does is give you other tools that you can use – how to barricade a door the right way, get out a window if you need to – different things to think about besides just locking the door and turning the lights off.”

Rehearsing reactions, even in your head, before a crisis happens may make dealing with a real one smoother, according to Training Sgt. Todd Wrage of the Oshkosh Police Department. He trained with the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) team at Texas State University in San Marcos. He now coaches others through the police department and through Fox Valley Technical College.

“Mentally script things,” he said. “It creates a (mental) shortcut so when you’re under stress, you don’t have to do that.”

Such run-throughs can reduce anxiety, according to Misco.

“It’s important that we practice these things with the kids just like a fire drill over and over so kids know what to do,” she said. “If we practice these things, kids aren’t as afraid.”

Armed with skills

During the training sessions, tactical-training firearms instructors armed with airsoft guns act as the adversaries while participants run, hide, barricade themselves or fight back.

“If you were found, you were shot,” Harvey said. “We had face masks and they were rubber bullets but (the shooters) would enter each room and sometimes come back.”

Between scenarios, they’d regroup and discuss what worked, what didn’t and their reactions to being hunted.

“These guys went around picking us off one by one, kicking open doors,” Manion said.

At first, some people resisted the training. “They said ‘I’m not a police officer, I don’t want to go through this training, I don’t need to go through this,’” Manion said.

Afterward, many of the same people said it was the best training they’d received in their entire careers, he said.

“What it does is give options to you instead of just staying there and being a target for people to just walk around and shoot you; you have options and we’re going to train you,” Manion said.

The Kaukauna Police Department’s first couple trainings were so well received they decided to take it to the public, to local agencies, and the chamber of commerce. They’re holding two classes this month for the public.

“The overall feeling people got was ‘I feel empowered after this training …. I can save people, I can save myself,” Manion said. “It gives them a feeling of some security, at least.”

Workplaces, schools and businesses are finding lockdown-procedure drills useful.

“They’ll do a public alert – ‘we have an active shooter in the building’ – so people know this is what I have to do, I have to lock down, I have to evacuate the building, or I have to hide and barricade,” Manion said.

His department undergoes active-shooter training yearly and incorporates many of the relevant principles in its more routine trainings.

In recent years, his police department has changed some procedures for answering some SWAT-type emergencies.

“We used to set up a perimeter around a building and wait for 20 of us to show up and go in there,” Manion said. “Obviously that’s way too late.”

Teaching survival

Wrage’s training usually takes the form of talks and presentations rather than incident enactment due to liability concerns.

“Anytime you’re involving civilians in anything that’s high stress, you run the risk of injury,” he said. “I don’t want people getting hurt in the name of trying to prevent them from being hurt.”

His talks include what people should expect when law enforcement arrives at a shooting.

“We talk about why we do the things we do so they don’t take it personally if, when they’re injured and bleeding, we might step over an injured person,” Wrage said. “We have a priority of work: to stop a killing. We can’t help anybody – and will just incur more casualties – if we don’t stop the killing.”

Officers who are trained in active-shooter response tactics study what’s known about real mass shootings, who survived and how, and who didn’t and why.

Wrage prefers to tour a business before speaking there so he can customize the talk. He looks for potential safe spots for employees as well as weak points in which an intruder might enter.

“I look for areas where they can lock themselves in, deny access to themselves,” Wrage said. “Say there’s a concrete walled tool bunker in a warehouse. I can use that as an example as an area where they can deny access (to themselves) if they’re not able to get out of a building.”

Wrage trains groups as few as eight or 10 people up to 200. He spoke last year to a large conference on court security. Training can take the form of a 30-minute talk or lecture, or several hours, depending on how in-depth an organization wants.

“One thing I talk about is the psychology of survival: why do some people survive and others don’t,” he said.

Wrage said healthcare workers such as nurses tell him they won’t leave their patients even in an emergency. He said it’s understandable, but they can take steps to protect themselves and their patients.

“My best advice if they indicate a refusal to leave their patients is for them to get into a room with one of them and close the door,” Wrage said. “Most shooters aren’t going to search room-by-room unless they have a specific intended target. They tend to focus on targets of opportunity, so being in an open area is all bad.”

Such training events often generate questions from concealed-carry permit holders asking about putting themselves into the action in an attempt to take down the shooter.

“If somebody chooses to put themselves in that position, I certainly support it because they’re supporting the mission of saving lives,” he said. “But I would advise them to find a way not to have that weapon in their hand when we arrive as law enforcement … because our senses are heightened and we’re going to be more sensitive to anyone carrying a weapon. Somebody having a gun in their hand is not necessarily going to be a good thing.”

Even though such training might just be one day out of an entire lifetime for an event with a slim likelihood of even occurring in the first place, Manion said the value comes from simply thinking about how one might react and practicing that reaction.

“Are people going to be proficient at this? Probably not, but the ones who really want to will practice it and get better,” Manion said. “You’d be surprised at the woman who is attacked from behind and who had three hours of self-defense, how she disengages from that attacker and gets away. It saves her life.

“When people fear for their lives, it’s amazing what they can do,” he said.