Feature Article 4

Improve School Safety and Security by Reviewing Lessons Learned from "Active Shooter" Table Top Exercises

By Larry G. Holloway, CSP

Author Biography

Larry G. Holloway, CSP
President
LGH Safety Services, LLC
Kingsport, TN

Larry G. Holloway is president and founder of LGH Safety Services, LLC, a consulting company specializing in exercise design development for industries and school systems. Prior to setting up his own company Larry was employed at Eastman Chemical Company with over 30 years of experience in the areas of emergency exercise design, incident investigation, Risk Management Plan development, shelter-in-place strategy, dispersion and consequence modeling. He brings a combination of strengths that provide a unique ability to facilitate the design, development, and implementation of exercise programs. Larry is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), a Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) and has a B.S. in Chemistry from Georgetown College. He is the chairman of the Hazardous Materials Subcommittee of the Sullivan County Integrated Emergency Preparedness Council (IEPC) and an officer in his local chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Abstract

This discussion topic will review the eleven categories of lessons that were learned from the table top exercises which were conducted at elementary, middle, and high schools.

The table top exercise is conducted in a single room where each of the four participating groups (school, police, fire, and EMS) are assembled at separate tables. Observers are located at the back of the room and they can take notes but they cannot offer information. One person is designated to scribe for the entire exercise. The exercise objectives for each group are quickly reviewed and the protocol for the exercise is described. The floor is then opened to questions and when they are completed the exercise is started. The exercise controller describes the overall setting for the day. A series of messages is then presented to the participants. The group to which the message is addressed gives their response based on existing policies, practices, and procedures. Each group describes their response based on the comments of the previous group. Discussion is permitted at the discretion of the exercise controller. After each group has had their opportunity, the next message is given and the process is repeated until the end of the exercise.

A critique is conducted at the end of each exercise and the lessons learned are captured for further review and implementation, as appropriate.

The lessons learned from each exercise have been compiled and combined. Ten exercises were done during one school year and each exercise provided at least one unique improvement opportunity that was not identified in any of the other exercises. The design team was expecting each exercise to be completed in a fashion very similar for each school. This was generally true but the differences in the campuses and specific procedures at each school accounted for the uniquely identified items for improvement. The eleven categories of the lessons that were learned from the ten exercises are listed below:

These categories will be discussed in detail with the goal of stimulating an exchange of ideas that will benefit the safety and security of school campuses.

Introduction

This paper reviews the lessons that were learned from an effort that used a common industry practice, the Table Top Exercise, as a means for improving the safety and security procedures in public and private schools. The primary focus of this paper will be the sharing of the lessons that were learned from the Table Top Exercises. Eleven categories of lessons learned from exercises that were conducted at elementary, middle, and high schools will be addressed.

This process was developed to address a need to minimize the consequences of terrorism in schools that was identified after the tragic incident at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. A team comprised of local school representatives, police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS) and industry were assembled to create and implement “Active Shooter” Table Top Exercises for all City schools in Kingsport, Tennessee. The primary customer for these exercises was the school system but a synergy developed early into the process for these groups to become an interactive team.

The first step is the selection of the exercise design team. Representatives from each of the four participating groups are selected along with a facilitator/controller. The group meets to review the exercise process protocol along with the existing policies, practices, and procedures for each of the participating groups. Exercise objectives are then selected from these documents and a master scenario is created which fulfills the scope of the exercise.

An Orientation Seminar is then prepared that will be presented to all participating groups at the same time. This seminar will familiarize the groups with the exercise objectives that have been selected for each group for the Table Top Exercise. The protocol for the Table Top Exercise will be explained and each group will have the opportunity to ask any questions that they may have. The groups are then given a period of time to review the exercise objectives and make any changes to their existing policies, practices, and procedures before the exercise. Changes should be communicated to the individual groups well in advance of the Table Top Exercise. The Orientation Seminar is used so that each group will have an opportunity to understand the scope and expectations for the Table Top Exercise and to ensure that each group has had time to prepare for the exercise.

The master scenario is then adapted to each school. This is accomplished when members of the design team walk through each school to determine strengths and weaknesses of the campus. Floor plans are carefully reviewed along with still pictures and videos of each school.

These videos/pictures are then incorporated into a PowerPoint presentation that links them into an easily accessible multimedia format. These pictures and videos are then incorporated into the messages of the adapted Table Top Exercise to enhance the realism of the exercise.

The Table Top Exercise is the next step in the process. A single room is used where each of the four participating groups are assembled at separate tables. Observers are located at the back of the room and they can take notes but they cannot offer information. One person is designated to scribe for the entire exercise. The exercise objectives for each group are quickly reviewed and the protocol for the exercise is described. The floor is then opened to questions and when they are completed the exercise is started. The exercise controller describes the overall setting for the day. A series of messages is then presented to the participants. The group to which the message is addressed gives their response based on existing policies, practices, and procedures. Each group describes their response based on the comments of the previous group. Discussion is permitted at the discretion of the exercise controller. After each group has had their opportunity, the next message is given and the process is repeated until the end of the exercise.

After the exercise is completed a short break is taken and everyone reassembles to participate in a critique. Notes are taken regarding actions that were done well and opportunities for improvement. A listing of expectations is given to the school principal at the conclusion of the critique. A master list of the lessons that were learned from all the exercises is given to each school principal for review and incorporation into their respective emergency plan, policies, practices, and procedures.

The remaining staff at each school and the staff for each agency represented are then trained regarding the changes made as a result of the exercises. This activity can be accomplished effectively at required staff meetings during the summer before school starts.

An audit protocol is then used to assess the compliance with the established expectations for each group.

This process received very strong support from each of the groups represented. The school staff group learned a great deal about how the other groups already have policies in place to address a wide variety of emergencies. The end result of this process was an increased understanding of the capabilities of each, improved communications, and the minimization of the consequences should an “active shooter” incident occur.

The major lessons that were learned from this process were the identification of areas and operations where minor and in most cases inexpensive changes would have a significant positive effect on the security of the facility. The lines of communication were significantly improved between the participating organizations and the expectations they have of each other. This experience demonstrated how to modify a basic industrial technique to develop a security/vulnerability assessment methodology for the community.

Due to the complexity of the project and the number of schools to be exercised, the process was limited to the first two levels of the four levels of exercises: The Orientation Seminar and the Table Top Exercise. The remaining components would be considered at a later date. The consensus of the team was that the objectives of the school administration would be accomplished with these two elements.

“Lessons Learned” Categories

The lessons learned from each exercise have been compiled and combined in this section. Ten exercises were done during one school year and each exercise provided at least one unique improvement opportunity that was not identified in any of the other exercises. The design team was expecting each exercise to be completed in a fashion very similar for each school. This was generally true but the differences in the campuses and specific procedures accounted for the uniquely identified items for improvement. A presentation was made to all of the school principals that addressed the “Lessons Learned” from all of the exercises. The eleven categories of the lessons that were learned from the ten exercises are listed below:

Overall Training Needs for Each School’s Staff

After the exercises have been completed and the “Lessons Learned” document developed, a large training element still remains. The school staff that participated in the exercises only represented a small percentage of the entire staff at the school and they were the individuals that experienced the lessons learned for their school. The remaining staff needs to be informed of the lessons learned from the entire list that applies to their specific school. Without this training element, the main value of the exercises is not realized.

Conclusion

In this paper I have described how the application of a common industrial practice, the Table Top Exercise, can be used to improve the security procedures in public and private schools. I also reviewed in detail the lessons that were learned from the entire process. An additional benefit was the synergy that was established between the four groups during each of the ten exercises.

It is my sincere hope, that by publishing this paper, other school systems will undertake the assignment of improving their schools security using this innovative technique.

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the indispensable efforts that were provided by Gale Osborne, Deputy Police Chief, Kingsport, Tennessee, and Barbara Moody, Kingsport City School System, without their efforts this project could not have been accomplished