Can businesses cope with an attack on their employees?

In Britain we have been here before, one way or another. During the IRA bombing campaign in mainland Britain, lives were lost and millions of pounds of damage were caused in London and elsewhere. Today, such threats are more varied and more intrusive. Some attacks can be categorised as terrorism while others are the products of violent criminality whose causes can be as much psychological as ideological or political – hard to understand and harder still to combat. In the USA, for example, the ‘active shooter’ threat has become a serious concern. The term refers to one or more armed individuals roaming unchecked inside and outside buildings, firing indiscriminately at anyone present. The target locations have included restaurants, parking lots, malls, nightclubs, schools, universities, and holiday resorts.

Offices and homes are hardly more immune than public spaces. Sometimes this happens by accident, in that terrorists may enter premises that are not their intended target. For example, in London, the Balcombe Street Siege occurred when IRA members took refuge in council flats. The siege ended without casualties but it could well have been otherwise. Business premises are equally at risk. Attackers do not necessarily discriminate when their intention is simply to cause death and destruction. Office workers and other employees can be at as much risk as government servants, policemen or tourists when grievances are generalised and the urge is to terrorise and kill.

Why are the death tolls often so high? There are typically three reasons. Firstly, a lack of preparedness for such crises in the places where they happen. Secondly, ease of access – both to weapons, improvised or otherwise – and to the target locations. And, thirdly, the time that it takes for security forces to be summoned, arrive, assemble, put together an immediate action plan and storm the premises – and thus the killers’ opportunity to roam unimpeded for relatively long periods of time. At the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, during the three hours and 38 minutes between the gunman’s first and last shots, 32 people were murdered and17 wounded.

So how to mitigate the likelihood and impact? Some examples are: better security at possible access points, a more effective means of notifying everyone of the threat at an early stage, an improvement in the availability and signposting of exits, more awareness by all those who work and visit of what they should do in the event of an attack – and places where they can seek sanctuary. These are all of great importance and those who manage premises should seek improvements in each of these areas as appropriate. These improvements will help not only to protect against acts of human violence, but also against other life-threatening crises. Fires in buildings such as Grenfell Tower in London are an example.

In the shipping industry, having a place where sanctuary can be sought has been a life-saver on a number of occasions. On board, the ‘citadel’ is a secure area in which crewmembers can take refuge should pirates or terrorists board. It is reinforced to withstand attempts to gain access. It allows naval forces to storm the vessel with less likelihood of harming crewmembers. In many places, this principle can be applied on land. Bathrooms, large storage cupboards, inner offices, maintenance areas and other such areas in buildings and compounds can often be turned at low cost into sanctuaries and advertised as such to employees.

Another route for risk mitigation is the use of smartphone technology as a fast response to active shooters. There is the potential for the development of tracking systems informing individuals of fastest exit routes, safety registers allowing users to mark themselves as ‘safe’ and smartphone-initiated alerts to trigger building-wide distress signals – thus creating valuable extra seconds for evacuation. This is an area with huge potential, not forgetting however that some individuals will not have their smartphones with them, may ignore messages or – common affliction – will have run out of battery power!

In addition, education, simulations, first aid training and the installation and practising of dedicated attack alarms will help to instil the necessary mental preparedness on the part of all leaders and employees.

Finally, some words on the emergency services. In London, sparked not least by the traumatic experiences of “7/7”, the multiple and near-simultaneous terrorist attacks in London in 2005, there have been significant improvements in responsiveness. During the London Bridge attacks this year, the first armed responders arrived within eight minutes of the start of the incident and almost immediately killed all three attackers. In similar vein, the rapid treatment and evacuation of wounded and their apportionment to half a dozen different hospitals dependent on capacity in each one was testimony to lessons having been learnt from past experience and to good planning, preparation and practice.

In our experience, local emergency services welcome approaches from business, property and community representatives in order to learn from the services themselves how they can mitigate the impact of violence inside and outside the workplace as well as other threats to life and wellbeing.

There was a time when broaching the possibility of a violent death and how it might be reduced was considered by many to be damaging to employee morale. Times and perceptions have changed and better for confidence nowadays is to explain – without being alarmist – the dangers and how they can be reduced by sensible precautions. Employers have a duty of care and this extends to taking reasonable steps to put in place both the physical arrangements and the education to maximise the chances of employee survival in such situations. There is plenty of advice on hand to help them do so.

This guest blog was written for Deverell Associates by Dan Oppenheimer who can be contacted on