In June 2016, Orlando, Florida, saw the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history. Although the shooter was known to law enforcement before the attack that killed 49 and injured more than 50 others, knowledge of extreme views or malevolent intent is often not enough to prevent a future attack months or even years in the future.
Despite best efforts, numerous mass casualty attacks, such as those at Virginia Tech, the Boston Marathon, Century Theater, and the Pulse nightclub have occurred where the attackers were known in advance to the police and mental health professionals. The grim new reality of American life is that many mass shootings and terrorist attacks cannot be prevented in advance. Some attacks – whether driven by mental illness, terrorism, or religious or racial extremism – will always penetrate the law enforcement safety net and arrive at someone’s door. Therefore, the debate rages on about what can be done to reduce the egregious loss of life from these mass shootings. Politicians talk about gun control and what law enforcement can do to identify and disrupt potential threats. Others focus on radicalization and the need for better treatment for those with mental illness, but talk alone is not enough to protect the nation’s people.
Protecting Buildings – From Fires to Shooters
Guns in the wrong hands, terrorism, and severe untreated mental illness are important factors in prevention, and all must be thoroughly addressed. However, planners must not stop there or be content that nothing more can be done. One thing that can have a dramatic impact for reducing the loss of life in such attacks is protective measures for public buildings to make them less attractive targets to shooters and safer environments for their occupants. From the perspective of protecting buildings, clearly there is much more that can be done.
In the 1940s, the United States had some of the worst hotel fires in its history. The Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, Georgia, killed 119 people. The La Salle Hotel fire in Chicago, Illinois, killed 61. And the Canfield Hotel fire in Dubuque, Iowa, killed 19. This spate of deadly fires spurred significant changes in fire safety and North American building codes. President Harry S. Truman led the charge in creating mandates to protect buildings against fire – most significantly requiring multiple protected means of egress and self-closing fire-resistive doors for hotel guest rooms. Smoke detectors, alarms, and sprinkler systems increasingly became the standard safety equipment for public buildings in the 20th century. The number of casualties from non-residential building fires in the United States plummeted as a result. For example, data collected by the National Fire Protection Association from 1977 to 2015 shows a reduction in non-residential building fires from 370 deaths in 1977, to only 80 in 2015. Just as Truman took measures to protect buildings against fires, innovative leadership should now take measures to protect buildings and their occupants from active shooters.
In the recent attacks in Orlando (Florida), San Bernardino (California), Colorado Springs (Colorado), Paris (France), and countless others, it became apparent that the minutes – even seconds – after the first shot is fired are critical. The sooner law enforcement can be alerted and directed to the shooting location, and the more information they have as they respond, the more lives can be saved. According to the FBI, more than half of all shootings are over before police even arrive. In order to save lives, the victims have to be alerted and have to escape from the shooter’s path faster, and police must have the information to neutralize the threat much sooner.
Imagine if first responders and building occupants could all know within a second the location and number of gunshots fired regardless of whether they are several floors away, in the next building, or 20 miles away at a 9-1-1 dispatch center. Police officers could spend all their time focused on responding to the current location of the shooter, while building occupants could spend all of their time evacuating away from danger. Much chaos and confusion could be avoided, and precious minutes would not be lost to the delays and errors that often occur.
The technology already exists to combine gunshot sensors with building security and emergency communication systems to reduce this confusion and provide more timely and accurate information to law enforcement. Like smoke detectors, sprinklers, and other fire safety systems, the technology automates and accelerates 9-1-1 calls and mass notifications to building occupants. As soon as the sensors detect a gunshot, a series of predetermined actions is activated that can improve responses vital to ensuring the safety of both victims and first responders.
Unfortunately, public buildings are vulnerable targets for mass shootings, and thus more desirable targets for shooters and terrorists. When an aspiring assailant seeks to create mass casualties he (or she) will most likely seek a publicly accessible building with many unarmed occupants who can be caught off-guard, kept defenseless, and trapped in a building. At the same time, the shooter is provided a variety of places to move and conceal himself (or herself) from responding police and security forces as long as possible. The result is chaos, confusion, and delays for building occupants, police, and emergency medical personnel – all of which give the shooter significant advantage. However, it does not have to be that way. Better detection and response to this growing threat would save lives for decades to come. Although training and methods to prevent attacks – however imperfect – are important, a more balanced approach involving building protection and response technology is needed to safeguard people when those measures fail.