Chris Wilson | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Mourners gather at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting, Sunday, Aug. 5, at Cathedral Square in Milwaukee. A gunman killed six people at the suburban Milwaukee temple in a rampage that left terrified congregants hiding in closets and others texting friends outside for help. The suspect was killed outside the temple in a shootout with police officers.
MILWAUKEE — While most of us have participated in fire drills since we were small children, very few of us have even a remote idea of what to do when faced with someone who is indiscriminately shooting and killing people.
Security and law enforcement officials call it an “active shooter,” and a growing number of schools, hospitals and businesses across the nation are taking steps to prepare for just such a situation.
Whether it occurs in a house of worship, as it did this month in Oak Creek, Wis.; a workplace, as it did in Milwaukee on Aug. 2; or a theater, as it did in July in Aurora, Colo., in many cases there are steps that can be taken to increase the chances of surviving such an encounter, experts say.
There are no guarantees, but at least thinking about what you would do in a violent situation — as well as rejecting the notion that “this will never happen to me” — is a good first step.
The possibility of random violence is what Peter Pochowski calls the “new normal.”
“It’s a terrible, terrible situation, but it’s a fact of life,” said Pochowski, executive director of the Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association. “We can’t just ignore it. We have to be prepared for it.”
Pochowski was chief of security for Milwaukee Public Schools from 2000 to 2008 and before that spent 27 years as a Milwaukee police officer, retiring as a captain. The school safety organization is a nonprofit group that includes 300 members who work to improve safety in Wisconsin schools.
A change in the way we think as a society is needed, said Germantown Police Chief Peter Hoell.
“So many people think it’s not going to happen to them,” Hoell said. ” ‘I live in Germantown. Nothing ever happens in Germantown’ — that kind of mentality. That’s dangerous.”
Having a plan in place to deal with an active shooter can help lessen the loss of life in such situations, experts say.
Reports from the Aug. 5 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek indicate that worshippers took action by hiding, barricading themselves in rooms and apparently confronting the gunman — all things the U.S. Department of Homeland Security mentions in its guidelines for dealing with an active shooter.
“The whole concept is to buy time,” said Dick Sem, president of Sem Security Management, a security consulting firm in Lake Geneva. “These violent incidents play out very quickly, three to 10 minutes.”
Preparations for dealing with a gunman are taking place across sectors of the U.S. from education to health care to retail.
“Unfortunately, this is a topic that has been on our radar screen for a number of years,” said Michael Thiel, director of security for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
The recent violence in Oak Creek and Colorado has made security people even more vigilant.
“It very much has raised everybody’s awareness that it doesn’t just happen somewhere else,” Thiel said. “This is everywhere.”
Children’s Hospital has a large-scale drill centering on an active shooter scenario planned for later this year, Thiel said.
Mike Cummings, senior vice president of security and loss prevention for Aurora Health Care — one of Wisconsin’s largest employers — said in a statement that in addition to disaster preparedness plans, the company also has a threat assessment team and has specific training centered on an active shooter.
Security professionals generally don’t discuss specifics about their response plans publicly, other than sharing them within their organizations or industries; hospitals might share their plans with other hospitals and police, for example.
Schools in Wisconsin are required by state law to have crisis plans in place, Pochowski said. A number of school districts practice for what would happen in the event of a shooting situation as well as practice lockdowns and evacuations.
“An active shooter is a very high priority for school districts across Wisconsin and the United States,” he said.
Businesses, too, are increasingly taking steps to address the threats.
Stephen Smith, senior general manager of Mayfair mall in Wauwatosa, said staff in May completed an active shooter training program conducted by the Wauwatosa Police Department.
The training was done in a nearby building that was slated to be torn down.
“You’re trying to get as trained as you can to get people to react and respond safely, thoughtfully and intelligently through this process,” Smith said.
Training live as opposed to reading things in a textbook or watching a video “is really frightening, quite frankly,” Smith added. “The point of the exercise is it forces whoever is participating in it to kind of feel and react — as real life as you possibly can.”
Businesses that haven’t already done some sort of planning to deal with such a situation can no longer wait to do so, said Chad Stiles, a tactical EMS instructor at Waukesha County Technical College. “People in key positions need to do a threat assessment of their business,” he said.
Facility managers for everything from schools to malls to hotels to stadiums to hospitals to houses of worship — any place that is open and accessible to the public — are grappling with the issue, Smith said.
“Anybody who is operating these facilities, you do have your guard up a lot more than you did 20 years ago because we’re seeing the frequency on a national and international basis,” Smith said.
Businesses are wise to have plans in place to deal with violent situations. Homicide is the fourth-leading cause of fatal at-work injuries in the nation, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Businesses are definitely aware of the risks faced in the workplace, especially when troubled employees are involved, Hoell said.
“It’s not uncommon for us to get a call from a business saying, ‘We’re going to be terminating someone or disciplining someone and we’re a little concerned. Could you have an officer stop by while we do this?’ ” Hoell said. “That is not an uncommon call anymore.”
Still, while experts say warning signs usually precede acts of mass violence, they aren’t necessarily easy to spot.
“There are things that can be done to anticipate to some degree these risks and take some preventive measures,” Sem said, “but it’s never 100 percent.”