Your reputation—and people’s lives—are riding on your preparedness for riots, protests, shooters and acts of terrorism.
In September 2001, Alan Kleinfeld was living in Washington, D.C. The meeting professional was about to launch his own meeting management company, Arrive, but as the events of Sept. 11 unfolded around him, he felt the need to do something more.
“My apartment patio faced the Pentagon,” he says. “I got home after dark and looked out the balcony and could see the glowing fires at the Pentagon, and I was angry. I soon found out that I could be a reserve county police office, and I’ve been doing something in law enforcement on the side ever since.”
Kleinfeld realized something that day: The world was a different place than it had been just 24 hours before. He began counseling his clients to take security more seriously when planning events. It wasn’t just the threat of terrorism that loomed; in recent years, the term “active shooter” has become a part of popular lexicon. And while terrorist attacks in the West are still comparatively rare, mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise. There have been more total mass shooting incidents and deaths in the U.S. since 2005 than there were in the previous 23 years combined.
But to Kleinfeld’s dismay, his call for change in the meeting industry has often fallen on deaf ears. In fact, he says, the only widely adopted change he has seen is that meeting planners tend to include a clause in contracts that says they can cancel events because of terrorist acts. There’s nothing about the hotel having a crisis management plan, and nothing about the venue offering a staff member to help the organization design a contingency plan of its own.
“I tell my clients that it would be great if they could get a crisis management plan together, and the response is, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ But then nothing,” he says. “Nobody wants to think about all the bad stuff that can happen. And how can we prepare for it if we don’t know what it is? Meeting planners lack a foundation. They don’t know where to start.”
Unfortunately, it’s crucial that meeting organizers figure out where to start—and soon.
“It’s your meeting and your attendees, and your reputation is on the line,” says Bob Mellinger, owner of Attainium, a company that provides business continuity and crisis management training. “If it all goes to pieces because of someone with a gun or an explosion or a demonstration, are you prepared to take that heat?”
What could possibly go wrong?
You don’t have to look far into the past to see how the most innocuous-seeming event can turn into a historic tragedy. On Dec. 2, 2015, a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health holiday party and training event erupted in gunfire when an employee and his wife began shooting his co-workers. In fewer than four minutes, 14 people were killed and 22 were injured.
Being prepared for such an occurrence requires first conducting a risk, threat and vulnerability analysis, says Mac Segal, head of hotel and site security consulting at AS Solution.
“It starts with location. ‘Am I having an event in Nairobi? Am I a high-profile company? A Western company? Does my company tick off any particular groups because of my business dealings?’” Segal says. “Then you divide threats into probability and criticality. How likely is it that something will happen? If it happens, how critical is it?”
For example, Greenpeace protesters waving banners outside your event might be a probable incident if your organization angers environmentalists. But assuming everything stays peaceful, it’s not a very critical threat. On the other hand, an armed gunman running at the building might be very unlikely—but very critical if it does happen.
Demonstrations and protests have the benefit of coming with warning signs. If you’re to be targeted by some sort of protest, you’ll usually know something is brewing before it happens. But any terrorist or shooter situation that has slipped past the notice of law enforcement can occur without advance warning and come in an unpredictable form.
In any case, the first step to being prepared is accepting that anything can happen.
“Complacency is one of my biggest foes,” Mellinger says. “You have to realize that an active shooter, in particular, can happen anywhere and for any reason.”
Location, Location, Location
It’s one of the first decisions a meeting organizer makes, and potentially the most important. You likely have plenty of options, from your home city to another country and everywhere in between. Regardless of where you go, the security of the venue and the training of the staff should be your top concerns. Look for a venue that has any physical security you might need, such as fences or walls around the perimeter. After that, determine how comfortable you feel with the security staff. Ask questions.
“Who’s your contact? What’s their plan? They won’t show you the whole plan, and they shouldn’t,” Mellinger says. “On the other hand, they shouldn’t just say, ‘Trust us, we have a plan.’ If you’re not comfortable with their answers, I would not go there.”
Depending on the sensitivity of your event, you might even make some more formal requests, Kleinfeld says.
“Put in a clause about the hotel providing an emergency evacuation plan or a security liaison,” he says. “All they can do is say no.”
Segal advises choosing a venue with conference doors that can lock from the inside in case you need to keep someone out. Even for smaller, low-profile events, Segal suggests considering only venues that have their own security department, good alternative exits, tight access control and emergency response protocols already in place. He says it’s wise to prepare a security questionnaire outlining your requirements and send that to potential locations before choosing.
If you’ve chosen a venue but don’t feel totally comfortable with the security staff, Kleinfeld suggests hiring off-duty police officers or, at a minimum, notifying local law enforcement of your event.
“If a planner calls the police and says, ‘We will have 600 attendees and want to work with you to keep our people safe,’ most police departments will say, ‘Thanks for being proactive, and let us know how we can help,’” he says.
If the venue already has a relationship with local law enforcement, so much the better.
“For large-scale events like conventions, we work closely with hotels and they give us a heads up,” says Ashley Savage, public information officer at the Arlington County Police Department in Virginia. “We make sure that our patrol staff is aware and we have the resources available should we be needed.”
Plan for communication
After physical safety, the single most important concern in a violent situation and its aftermath is communication. Some things to consider:
- How will you communicate with staff? Via text? Does everyone have everyone else’s number stored in their phones?
- Where will you meet once it’s safe to do so? Where is your “command center?”
- Who’s in charge? When the venue or media asks to speak to the person in charge, is that the CEO? The head meeting planner? A media affairs professional? “That has to be figured out, because the wrong people giving the wrong message can create a secondary crisis,” Mellinger says.
- How will you communicate with attendees and their guests? Do you have emergency contact info for everyone?
- Who is your point of contact on the venue staff?
- How will you deal with injuries?
- How does this plan differ for the various incidents that could take place? Riots and shooters aren’t the only concerns; there are bombs, biological threats, suspicious packages and more.
Invest in training
Segal suggests that venues train all staff, from housekeeping to the general manager. Meeting professionals also need training, but it needs to be in the right areas. While everyone should be briefed on how to handle an active-shooter situation, for example, the focus of their training should not be on skills such as hand-to-hand combat or target shooting. Instead, invest in awareness and preparedness training. Those are the tools that will help your staff keep its cool when everything goes wrong.
“Good training would be things like how to stay calm in a crisis, and how not to faint at the sight of blood. Also, what are the first steps you take when you hear a shooting? Do you call 9-1-1? Tell the hotel? Find your CEO?” Kleinfeld says. “Meeting planners are good in a crisis in general, and if they just know what steps to take, they’d be able to take them fairly calmly.”
Once you have a plan and adequate training, you should hope you’ll never need to use them. But if you do, act calmly. Your fight-or-flight instinct will kick in, and your rational brain will need to override it.
“The kneejerk reaction to run is not always the best idea,” Segal says. “Only run if you’re certain the place you’re running to is safer than the place you already are. If I’m in the conference room and I hear shots fired in the hotel, I should probably not run. I should lock the door, stay away from the windows and stay close to the floor. If I run into the lobby, I may run straight into trouble.”
Fight only as a last resort. In that case, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends acting aggressively against a shooter, for instance, using improvised weapons and yelling. If you do any of those things, only do so with absolute conviction.
A plan is insurance
Mellinger, whose company trains between 3,000 and 5,000 people each year—many of those meeting professionals—says he’s happy to see that more and more planners are spending time planning for disaster. In the past, when he asked training attendees whether they had contingency plans, only about 10 percent did. Today, he says, it’s about 50 percent. Whether that’s because of the prevalence of active-shooter situations that seem to frequently dominate news headlines or high-profile terrorist attacks around the world, Mellinger says people are finally starting to internalize what’s at stake. Unfortunately, some of the people in his trainings say they finally developed contingency plans because they were previously caught without one when they needed it. He advises meeting organizers to not learn the hard way.
“Now, you can’t say you didn’t know. You’re on the hook,” he says. “If you’re responsible for a meeting, whether you’re the CEO or the meeting planner, you’ll all be held accountable. Do you want to be able to say you did your best? That you planned and did some training? Or that you just said, ‘Probably will never happen to us?’”
Terms and resources to help your staff prepare for outbreaks of violence
EAP: Emergency Action Plan
Active Shooter: An individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.
Neutralized: A perpetrator or threat that has been disarmed or rendered harmless.
Shelter in Place: Staying in a small interior room with no or few windows and taking refuge there.
Lockdown: A situation in which no one is allowed to exit or enter buildings near a threat area.
All Clear: A signal, usually from law enforcement, that danger has passed.
Active Shooter Preparedness from the Department of Homeland Security: Webinar, workshops and resources
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