I’m sure I have shared my story of being in an active shooter situation already, yet I will tell it one more time to help anyone reading this article understand my perspective.
It was in the mid-‘80s and I was a department manager. About 30 members of my staff and I occupied an area on the second floor, to the rear of the building. At the time, the area was filled with cubicles, with my office at one end. It was a morning like any other, when one of my staff members came running into the area and loudly announced, “There is someone in the front lobby shooting at other employees.” Well, that woke everyone up, and they started to congregate in the center of the room. I came out of my office, and as I had not heard any shots, I asked, “Does anyone know where the shooter is?” When the answer came back as a negative, the group got more agitated and nervous. As I was the leader, they looked to me for a decision as what to do. I believed then, as I believe now, that their safety was my responsibility.
Our company had provided management training on this type of situation by advising us to “hide if you can, or flee if you can, or fight if you must.” Since our immediate area did not have any rooms large enough for us to hide, and the second-floor conference rooms were in the front of the building, which was in the direction of the lobby, I chose not to go there. Instead, I decided to leave the building. I had thought about this before, and knew the back stairway was right next to the exit from our area, down the stairs and a left turn would take us out of the building, and then a right turn put us about 30 feet from our facility’s gate, a guard shack, and the parking lot entrance.
The group was becoming more visibly unsettled and I tried to calm everyone down with a little humor by looking at my watch and saying, “It’s 10:30, time for an early lunch. Follow me down the stairs off the facility, and do not return until 1 p.m.” One of my group supervisors was present, and I asked him to take up the rear to make sure everyone followed me. I told him I would wait for him at the bottom of the stairs and take him to lunch. It all went as planned, and in short order all 30 staff members were outside the facility.
Even though the situation seemed dire and threatening, what we did not know was that it was over long before we left the facility. As it turns out, a man entered the lobby asking to see an employee named Joe, who was dating his ex-wife. When Joe came walking down into the lobby, the man took out a handgun and started shooting. Fortunately, he only hit Joe in the small part of his ear, which Gunsmoke’s Festus called the “small hangey-down part.” When Joe realized what was happening and started to flee, the man sat down, put his gun on the table, and waited for the police to arrive. But another scary part was when one of the shooter’s stray bullets passed through a wall, and barely missed a secretary putting a memo through a copy machine, proving drywalled walls offer little protection. As I was driving out of the parking lot, Joe was being wheeled out to an ambulance and police cars were all around the front of the building.
But the story does not end yet. Two weeks later, I was pulled into the security office. The head of security wanted to know what possessed me to lead my staff off the facility. His concern was, “What if you had led the group right into the shooters path?” My response to him was, “What do you think would have happened if I would have held my employees in the center of our office area out in the open, and the shooter would have run into us? I made the best decision I could, using the information I had at the time. If you want a different outcome, maybe security should find a better way of letting employees know more about the situation as it occurs.” At which point, the room went silent and so ended the conversation.
When I read about College of the Canyons (COC) going into lockdown because of an individual who could not distinguish between a few branches and a rifle, I felt compelled to share what I learned from my experience. First, COC represents a far greater challenge. My workplace had almost every building on the perimeter of the facility, making evacuation a relatively simple task. COC, on the other hand, has a more complex mapping of buildings, some of which are bordered by other buildings, making effective evacuation planning contingent on where the danger is occurring. Being able to remotely lock doors is a great idea, providing you have enough information to know which doors to lock, and which to leave open. Otherwise, the worst thing which could happen, as Katie Wynkoop reported, “People didn’t know what to do. They literally just started running through the hall of the Student Center. There was no direction. It was kind of chaotic.”
Yet, Trustee Edel Alonso hit the nail on the head when she asked, “If there are cameras, are they actually working and recording or not? If they are recording, then who’s taking a look at those videos?” My experience taught me that a person will make decisions based on what they know, and if management desires better decisions, they need to provide more real-time information. COC, or any large campus of buildings, needs to have a comprehensive matrix of audio/visual cameras providing the ability to monitor every building entrance and hallway, in addition to the grounds surrounding their facility. While recording is of value, real-time monitoring must be accomplished in a 24/7 security command center, so that the next time a problem is reported, the security team can see and hear what is transpiring and take immediate action. In addition, the knowledge gained by camera review will be very useful in directing security and law enforcement personnel to the trouble spot. Then, using text messages to alert the entire campus, in addition to concerned loved ones as to what is transpiring, we can put those affected in a defensive posture and calm those who are out of harm’s way. COC can make all the plans it feels necessary, but when a tragedy strikes, knowing which part of which plan to implement will depend on how much the decision makers know about the situation. So, the more information they have the better.
Realize also we are dealing with human nature. If you lock down the campus too many times for things which turn out to be non-issues, soon lock-downs will not be taken seriously. In addition, I thought Deputy Chancellors comment interesting when he shared, “Some folks had concerns about an armed presence …. and the anxiety that could lead to … Other folks felt they wanted an armed presence to be responding to any threat.” I would ask, why isn’t the student’s safety the primary concern? COC management needs to be the adults in the room and provide for safety first.
In these two cases, we were fortunate. Both my situation at work long ago and the latest COC lockdown, resulted in no one seriously injured or killed. But, the lesson we should all think about is that all mass shootings which have taken place in recent times occurred within just a few minutes. The faster an appropriately trained and armed security guard or law enforcement officer can get to the scene, the less opportunity there is for the shooter to continue the rampage.
Hopefully that will never happen at College of the Canyons. I know several of the trustees and have faith they will take the lead toward putting an effective surveillance and notification system in place. I would rather we spend the money to enhance student safety and never use it than save a few dollars and wish we had done it.