Preparation Makes Safe Employees, Experts Say

By Beth Mirza Sep 15, 2010

On a late summer day, employees at the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., were thrown out of their daily routine and into a terrifying hostage-taking situation, as an armed man stormed the large building’s lobby and held three employees at gunpoint.

According to news reports, Discovery leaders told employees via e-mail and a public address system to hide in locked offices. As the event continued through the afternoon, employees were told to move to higher floors, and then to exit the building by way of staircases that did not lead through the lobby. Employees were evacuated safely. Police eventually shot and killed the hostage-taker—who was carrying a bomb and had planted explosive devices in the lobby—and rescued the hostages, who were unharmed.

Workplace violence experts called Discovery’s response successful.

“It worked well—people got out safely,” said Mike Runyan, managing director for Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations. “They got people to follow instructions.”

Make a Plan

Businesses can work with local law enforcement agencies to develop and review threat notification and evacuation plans, said Runyan.

“It’s great to tie in with first responders and coordinate a training event with them,” Runyan said. “You build connections; they can review the plan and see if there’s anything to amend.”

Police departments often have community resource officers tasked with these duties, Runyan added. Companies should initiate contact with the officer, not wait to be contacted.

Previously, Discovery had worked with Montgomery County, Md., law enforcement to have a restraining order placed against the hostage-taker, James Lee. In 2008, Lee had staged a protest against the Discovery Channel outside its headquarters. He was subsequently ordered by a judge not to come within 500 feet of the building for two years. The order expired two weeks before he attacked the building.

Working with the legal system gave Discovery an advantage, Runyan said. Front-desk staff and guards knew immediately who Lee was and reached out for help instantly. Because there had been a restraining order, police had a record of Lee’s behavior and could figure out what he was trying to do more accurately. They had personal information and a home address and could check to see if he had any registered weapons, Runyan said.

The FBI has offices in many cities called InfraGard, said Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI agent and public speaker. Once businesses join the local chapter, they can call the FBI and ask for more guidance on formulating their plans.

“This is a fantastic resource for all types of issues, particularly active shooters,” Lanza said.

A safety and security team—composed of the company’s risk manager, safety manager, security manager and HR manager—should work with the local police leaders, said Steve Albrecht, PHR, CCP, an HR and security consultant.

A top management official should be part of the team as well, Lanza said.

“The higher the better. That shows the importance of [the team],” Lanza said.

What the notification and evacuation plan entails—such as whether employees leave the building or hide in locked rooms—depends on the situation, Albrecht said.

“I always recommend that employees consider evacuating first. … I think employees have an intuitive desire to leave their work areas and the building,” Albrecht said.

If, however, their evacuation route would put them into the path of a gunman, employees should be told to go to a designated safe room, he added.

“The safe room concept is a good idea for any armed intruder incident. This could include moving to a higher floor. The key is to get to a room where you can lock and barricade the door and wait for the police response,” Albrecht said.

Consider, too, said Runyan, whether your building houses other tenants, if you have employees with special needs, if you can reduce public access to your facility and if—as in Discovery’s case—you want your building to be open to the public. Each factor should be considered in the notification and evacuation plan.

“There should be a constant reassessment of the plan,” he added. “This is a living document.” Update and re-evaluate as business needs change. Are employees moving around the building differently because of construction or renovation? Has a retail center been added? What about satellite sites?

Most of all, encourage employees to report to HR concerns they may have about another worker, Runyan said.

“Employees are your first line of defense,” he added. “HR plays a really valuable role in prevention” of a violent incident. HR professionals can set up a whistle-blower hotline to record complaints, publicize to employees the availability of counseling services and communicate any troubling information to colleagues in the legal and safety departments.

Communication Methods

Communicating with employees quickly and effectively is paramount, Lanza said.

“The most effective way is automatic messaging to people’s phones [including desk phones and cell phones]. Almost no one is more than five feet from their phone at any time,” Lanza said. “A text message to a cell phone is the fastest way.”

Companies should consider how they can use their public address systems during a crisis situation. Think about how to tell employees where to hide or escape without alerting the hostage-taker or gunman.

Security consultant Albrecht says he likes “PA announcements such as, ‘There is an unusual incident in the lobby. Please follow our procedure number 3.’ With training and drills, this coded message could get the employees to recall that number 1 is for a fire evacuation, number 2 is for a medical emergency and number 3 means armed intruder—time to evacuate or go to a safe room.”

Drill, and Drill Some More

The best way to ensure a good outcome in an event like Discovery’s is to practice, practice, practice, said the experts.

“Employees need reminders from time to time. Companies should practice active-shooter scenarios every six months to a year so that employees know exactly what to do during the situation,” Lanza said.

It’s no good to have a “paper program” no one is familiar with, added Runyan. He advises letting employees know that a drill will be held on a particular day—so that no one is unduly frightened—but not to tell them the time, to preserve some element of surprise. See if employees know where the exits are and where they should go. Record the response time and ask local law enforcement how it can be shortened, if needed.

“We need to practice workplace violence responses just like fire drills, but some executives don’t because they don’t want to scare employees or disrupt business operations. This mind-set must change,” Albrecht said.

Beth Mirza is a senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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