How I Survived An Active Shooter – Expert Tips for Employers

Written by Joanna Morrow

Joanna Morrow, Principal and Founder of Employer Benefits & Advice, is an employer consultant and advocate who has worked in the employee benefits industry for over two decades. She works diligently to help employers overcome obstacles in their business by sharing her expertise in Human Resources, Benefits & Compensation, Process Mapping, Risk Management and ERISA/DOL/IRS compliance. She is a licensed life and health insurance professional in the State of Arizona and is an active member of the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU).

How I Survived An Active Shooter – Expert Tips for Employers

It was December 6th, 1993. I was 22 years old, working as a Claims Information Clerk at a Worker’s Compensation office in Calgary, Alberta – Canada.

I remember it was a Monday, about 8:30 a.m. and I had just started work helping my first customer of the day, an injured construction worker, complete his claim forms.

Suddenly the security guard who normally manned the front door of the building appeared in my line of sight, walking slowly through the reception area with his hands in the air. Behind him, a gunman with a sawed-off shotgun pointed at his back.

My world went black.

The gunman was waving his gun yelling for everyone to stay where they were or he would shoot. Several of my co-workers dropped to the floor to put themselves out of shooting range. I didn’t have that presence of mind in all the panic.

My fight or flight mechanism kicked in, and my reflexes chose “flight”! I ran out of the area, up the stairs to the second floor where we had been instructed to gather in an emergency.

Once upstairs I scrambled to hide under a desk. As the sound of gunfire erupted downstairs it suddenly occurred to me that our corporate emergency response policy of congregating on the second floor with only one way out was probably not the best plan.

Surviving Workplace Violence

Today, more and more employers are looking to professionals for formalized training that will offer employees the best chance of survival should the unthinkable occur.

In Arizona, Justin Walker, president of MilMak Industries is one of the most reputable of those professionals with employers representing his fastest growing market segment. A seasoned veteran of law enforcement, Justin not only serves as an active member of one of the nation’s largest and busiest police forces right here in Arizona but is also a member of the department’s elite SWAT team. When he’s not fighting bad guys Justin spends a lot of his time teaching the public how to protect themselves and stay safe in an emergency.

Recently our firm hired Justin to come in and deliver training to staff after we were notified that a tenant in the building had received a threat “serious enough to warrant a response from law enforcement”. Justin did an amazing job and employees talked about it for weeks.

Following that training I sat down with Justin to find out more about the work he does, and steps employers can take to protect employees in an emergency.

Me: Justin, you’ve seen a lot in your work on the police force. Looking back on situations that have escalated to threats to public safety, what are some of the things you wish people had done differently?

Justin: The two main things I wish people would have done differently is be more aware and have a plan. The majority of people walk around with their heads in their phones, not paying any attention to the things going on around them. Awareness is huge. Unfortunately, following a traumatic event, law enforcement often discover a number of pre-incident indicators that should have alerted people to the threat.

Me: What are some examples of “pre-incident” indicators?

Justin: Something I always talk about to my clients and when I am speaking is to KNOW THE NORMAL.

You need to know the normal for your immediate environment – meaning your co-workers, the businesses around you, etc. Being aware enough to notice something abnormal puts you ahead of the curve.

Some specific things to watch for are people that don’t belong, or unscheduled visitors, depending on your type of business.

Body language is also extremely important. Is someone acting strange? Do they appear nervous, upset, or aggressive? Never dismiss any of these things. I always harp on people to trust their gut instincts. For example – if you terminate an employee and he/she responds strangely or aggressively, notify law enforcement. If you are feeling a certain way, it is most likely for a reason. Even if it is a false alarm, it’s better to be safe than sorry and now you’ve raised awareness for a potential threat.

Me: In my workplace event back in 1993 it came out later that the gunman had made a number of serious threats in the months leading up to the shooting, however, management chose not to share the information with the majority of staff to avoid alarming us. How does an employer determine what to communicate to employees?

Justin: Communication with your employees and surrounding businesses is key and can mean the difference between life and death. Frequently, an active shooter is not a random person. He could be someone’s spouse, estranged spouse, a disgruntled ex-employee, or an upset customer.

Being open and honest with employees and surrounding businesses about potential threats not only gives everyone the greatest chance of survival, but increases awareness for anything abnormal. If a threat is made against your business, you should notify surrounding businesses. This helps other businesses stay safe and increases overall awareness of the situation.

Me: What are some of the things individuals can do to ensure they get out alive should a violent situation arise in the workplace?

Justin: You must have a plan – I can’t stress this enough. As human beings, we always perform better when we have things to reference in our brain or experience to draw from. Think back to when you were in school and fire drills were performed on a regular basis. You rehearsed enough that you knew what to do should a real fire occur. Responding to any emergency situation is the same.

In surviving an active shooter situation, run, hide, fight is pretty much the standard right now. Meaning your first option is to run and get away from the threat, the second option is to hide, and the last option is to fight if you absolutely must.

Each situation is different and unique. In a fire most everyone has heard of the “stop, drop and roll” survival technique. In the case of a gunman, the baseline advice is Run, Hide, Fight.

Me: In fairness Justin, “run, hide, fight” sounds like pretty common-sense advice when it comes to surviving a threat of violence. What can a member of the SWAT team teach me beyond that?


Justin’s response to that question, Part 2 of my interview with Justin Walker, and the conclusion of my own personal story of workplace violence. Read it here.