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Active Shooter Session

Taking a little break from thinking about books, I want to share what I learned from the Active Shooter Session I attended earlier this week. Here's the summary I wrote:

On Tuesday, February 19, I and many other library personnel attended a workshop hosted by the Department of Homeland Security and the Nassau County Police. There we learned tips on how to deal with an active shooter.

An active shooter is someone in your building who is there to kill or otherwise hurt people. Our response must be immediate. And escaping is always an option. Just as important, though, is to have policies and plans in place that can help prevent such things from happening and/or to be prepared if they do. Librarians can be first preventers.

We should be cognizant of the fact that shootings have happened in libraries and more often than not the shooter was someone who was already suspect. Libraries, the police say, are an attractive soft target. And most libraries have wide-open floor plans that don’t provide much cover.
So, we have to ask ourselves, do we have a policy on homeless people? On the mentally ill? How do we diffuse angry patrons? What’s your plan for threats made, say by an ex-husband who’s tired of waiting for his children being brought to the library by his ex-wife? When do you speak up? When do you call authorities? Above all, don’t be passive--just as we’ve heard on mass transit systems: If you see something, say something.

One of our first lines of defense against irate patrons is something called verbal judo. According to various websites, the technique uses presence and words to calm people and to “diffuse potentially dangerous situations.” I’ve used it unwittingly. Whenever I see a patron complaining to a clerk about fines or lost books, I go over. I find it helps to have a second person there. And I calmly ask what’s wrong and then make suggestions to the patrons about what to do (keep looking at home for the book, maybe we can reduce your fines, etc.). I find that the patron is much more likely to stop the abusive language if faced with someone they think is higher on the library totem pole.

Your library should also conduct a site survey. Inventory your building’s security and look for vulnerabilities. Do you have an intercom system? Alarms? Door locks? Is the room easily accessible? Are you safes left open? How easily is it to steal office equipment? What are your opening and closing procedures? Often it’s better to have two people working together when opening and closing the library. 

Next, do an on-site evaluation of your property. Do you have high shrubbery where things can be hidden?  What kind of fences do you have? Do you have protective lighting outside the building? Do you have large windows that give shooters wide views of what’s going on inside? Do you have any CCTV cameras? 

Take some proactive steps. Every library should have a policy in place on what to do with irate patrons, suspicious persons and packages. If necessary, post signs that say we do not tolerate verbal abuse. Let patrons know, somehow, that they will be asked to leave the library or denied library privileges if they continue to act in an unseemly manner. Do hourly headcounts. Try to know how many people are using your library at any given time and where they are. Have some sort of library public address system through which you can notify patrons and staff of any danger and how they should proceed. If your storytimes—or any programs, really--are conducted in a room away from most of the rest of the library, tell people where the emergency exits are and that if there is an emergency, they should not come to the room but go to where those doors exit the building. Also consider how you will get disabled people out of the building and move senior citizens quickly. Look for safe rooms in your buildings – i.e. those behind fire or steel doors or at least doors you can barricade. The goal is to reduce chaos. 

Every now and then I do remember and let the parents know about emergency exits. Usually it’s sufficient to tell the parents at the first story time of a series, and not to worry the kids by mentioning it every time you meet. With older kids, teens, and adults you might want to conduct a little drill to show them how to exit the building in case of an emergency. 

In addition to having written policies and plans in place, meet with your staff to explain these plans. Every building should have an incident commander and plans should be re-evaluated every six months. Finally, don’t hesitate to share your experiences with other libraries and to borrow and learn from what others have done. 

When I worked in publishing, I was the “disaster coordinator” for my small group in editorial. I attended twice yearly meetings, had to test off-site backup systems, and had to keep up-to-date lists of staffers and their contact information. We had a pre-arranged meeting place in the event of an evacuation. We also had “go bags” – every staffer received a backpack with a bottle of water, a cereal/granola bar, a reflective blanket, and a few first-aid supplies. We could add anything to the backpack we deemed necessary. The packs were to stay at our desks until needed.
If something does happen at your library, you should be able to quickly notify patrons that they should leave the building or go to a safe spot. Use clear language. Say something simple, like, “There is an emergency, please evacuate the building.” 

What do you tell the first responders? Use good, useful information. Be clear and provide as much descriptive information as possible. If you’re calling in a bomb threat, use a bomb threat checklist (you can find one here: to help organize your thoughts and facts.
Have an up-to-date floor plan of your building and give a copy to your local police. They will appreciate having the information. If you can, have one that you can give to a first responder. But, above all, if the shooter is still active in the building, don’t get in the first responders way. The police have changed their methods of dealing with active shooters—especially after the shootings at Columbine. At one time, they would have secured the site, locked down the building and called in SWAT teams. Now they don’t wait. They will enter the building and actively look for the threat. Don’t get in their way.

The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have many resources – and even independent study classes. See and Our instructor told there were two classes specifically for schools and libraries – IS-917 and IS-936, but I couldn’t find these on the website.
OSHA has a document to help plan for emergencies and evacuations:
Local Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness: 516-573-8440
Department of Homeland Security:
New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services:


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