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Action v. Reaction: A Dangerous Paradigm in Safety

Whenever we as humans consider danger, there is a natural psychological tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario and then seek to envision how we might best respond should it occur. We ask ourselves, “What should we do if…?”, envisioning the event as it unfolds, and searching for the most effective potential responses to that threat.  This dynamic is evident when considering interpersonal violence, and often plays out in the world of active threat preparedness and training.

Not surprisingly, initial concepts of “active shooter preparedness” quickly centered around a post-attack response.  Early guidance such as “run, hide, fight” and other techniques were all early attempts to give direction to a public who demanded an answer to the “what do we do if…?” question.  While there is value in their approach in mitigating damage and ending an attack in progress, it is important to understand that these systems were never meant to be the definitive answer to meaningful preparedness for active threat attacks. A post-attack response approach to active threat preparedness leaves out massive areas of opportunity which if unaddressed, tragically often prove deadly.


Human performance studies teach us a simple truth: Action is always quicker than reaction.  In the context of active threat attacks, this means that if we focus our training and protocols on scenario-based systems which involve seeing a weapon and then responding, we are always on the wrong side of the equation.  This approach is dangerously inadequate.  If safety teams wait for a weapon to appear before moving to take appropriate action, a predictable sequence of events will play out:


  • If a suspected threat is identified, they will be surveilled until an attack occurs
  • The attack will occur in a location of the attacker’s choosing (typically where there is high damage potential)
  • People will be hurt or killed
  • The threat will be neutralized


Recent attacks underscore the truth that, even when an attacker is neutralized quickly, innocent people are still injured and killed.  Building a safety program which relies solely upon post-attack response reinforces this pattern. It is ill-advised at best, and irresponsible at worst. 


In order to break this cycle, organizations need to be equipped to identify potential threats early in the event cycle and appropriately isolate, investigate and intervene when necessary.  Protocols and training need to blend hard-skill capability with “soft skills” and early-detection modalities.  Training in elements like body language, neurolinguistics, and threat detection must be consistently and repeatedly emphasized.  Physical security engineering should employ CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) to allow for areas of relaxed environmental atmospherics, which by contrast will allow these trained individuals to more readily identify individuals who appear uncomfortable. Location maps and early-response plans should identify and incorporate multiple suitable interview / quarantine locations, which eliminate lanes of fire and place safety team members in the most advantageous position should an attack occur, especially within areas of initial contact.  Safety teams should be taught to move early and often as a coordinated unit, with protocols that allow for subtle and welcoming contact, quarantine and questioning of potential threats.


This approach allows teams to identify potential threats as they are suspected, utilize the most advantageous location within their space to manage a threat should it occur, clear them in a welcoming and unobtrusive way, or — if an attack is unpreventable — to trigger the occurrence of violence in the location of the TEAM’s choosing.  This ultimately puts the safety team on the action side of action/reaction equation, and decreases the likelihood of initial attack injury.  It is an important piece of a holistic and truly effective system of preparedness.

Ben Kincaid is the founder and CEO of Complete Threat Preparedness – a counterterrorism and comprehensive emergency preparedness consulting firm.

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