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Businesses in Arkansas Confront Shooter Scenario

8 min read

The alarm rang out on a stormy Sunday night, rattling employees at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and conjuring up two words that strike fear in modern American life: “active shooter.”

The “Code Black” alert in early May was a false alarm. No gunman was active. But the fact that such an alarm exists at UAMS attests to how the world has changed since the Columbine attack of 1999 and the long string of shootings that have followed at schools, universities and workplaces.

Many Arkansas businesses and institutions now have reaction plans for mass shootings, and some training goes beyond the federal government’s basic run-and-hide recommendations.

Several companies, including the electric utility Entergy, have mandatory programs to prepare employees for cases of violence, and two security firms are licensed by the state to provide active-shooter training to private enterprises, according to the Arkansas State Police.

One of those firms, Get Trained Be Ready of Searcy, teaches concealed-carry permit holders how to react with lethal force if faced with a gunman at the workplace, in church or elsewhere.

Schools, government agencies and hospitals, which often have their own security forces, were among the first to adopt mass-shooter procedures. But now office buildings, retail centers and businesses are increasingly preparing.

“Within the last year we’ve made an extra effort to teach our employees what to do if they are faced with an active shooter situation,” Entergy spokesman David Lewis said. “Our concerns were driven not by anything about Entergy in particular, but just by the realization that these things could happen anywhere, including here.”

Entergy’s 14,000 employees are required to undergo computer-based training. “If you ignore it, you’ll get an email that says you’ve got 30 days, or whatever, to take this course,” Lewis said. “The basic instructions are simple: Run, hide, fight, in that order.”

Most programs for businesses are based on recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security, which advises people to follow a planned escape route and immediately evacuate. If escape is impossible, it suggests hiding out of the shooter’s view, locking doors or barricading entry points and staying silent.

Only as a last resort does it recommend fighting — when lives are in imminent danger. In those cases it suggests improvising with actions like throwing objects at the gunman, rushing him or using a fire extinguisher as a weapon.

“I have given many presentations that all come down to run-hide-fight,” said Kevin Davis of D2 Security Solutions of Searcy, one of the state-licensed training consultants. After presenting a video based on government recommendations, he focuses on how to keep threats out, and on determining the best escape routes for employees, customers and others.

“Run is always the best option, and knowing your best way out is crucial. Even in running, you have to give yourself options. If you can’t reach a door, you might break out a window,” Davis said.

When escape is impossible — he gave examples of a teacher in charge of students or a nurse responsible for patients — “we teach people how to barricade themselves,” said Davis, a full-time public safety official at Harding University in Searcy. “Find a room where you can lock the door, or if it can’t be locked pile as much stuff in front of it as possible. Tables, chairs, shelves. Then turn the light out and find a corner.”

Malls, Colleges, Hospitals

Melissa Boyle, marketing director for Outlets of Little Rock on Bass Pro Parkway, said the 325,000-SF shopping center takes “several proactive measures to promote a safe environment” and ensure preparedness. She said all security officers, contracted through United Security Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, go through training, but she was wary of offering specifics.

“Due to the sensitive nature of safety and security,” she said, “we do not disclose our program in detail as it might compromise our efforts.”

She added that the mall has a close relationship with the Little Rock Police Department and other public agencies, but she didn’t specify whether employees of the center’s approximately 75 stores receive instructions on what to do to safeguard themselves or customers.

She said that firearms, other than those carried by federal, state and local law enforcement officers, are strictly prohibited.

Of course, most private businesses have the right to allow their employees to carry weapons, and robbery-prone sites like banks, pawnshops and liquor stores have long had armed workers on duty.

But all colleges and universities in Arkansas prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons by students or staff members, excepting law enforcement officers. A 2013 state law allows staff members with concealed-carry permits to be armed on college campuses, but the law also allows campus governing boards to opt out, thus banning concealed weapons. So far, all of the state’s two- and four-year colleges and universities have opted out, with the University of Arkansas System board of trustees voting 7-2 late last month to keep weapons out.

Hospitals like CHI St. Vincent also forbid guns, and hope to keep that policy even as gun rights activists push for allowing people with concealed-carry licenses to be armed in almost all public places.

CHI St. Vincent President Polly Davenport and her security chief, Paul Gaskin, gave their rationale. “We have to keep this a safe and sacred place,” Davenport said. “We don’t allow the public to bring weapons in, and our hospital association would speak out for keeping it that way.”

Gaskin said that his security force, 30 strong, not counting off-duty police officers who fortify staffing, is unarmed. Their first response to a shooter would be to evacuate employees and patients and to put out warnings by email, text and overhead public address systems. All of the hospital system’s 4,500 employees are trained annually on how to respond to violence, and its orientation program also covers the topic.

Davenport said CHI St. Vincent’s four hospitals and 73 clinics take workplace violence very seriously. “This has happened everywhere, and it has happened in our company at a CHI facility in Oregon. I feel that we are very prepared, but it is a concern that we can’t ignore.”

UAMS, which as an academic medical center has its own police department, has about 40 certified officers who are all trained to respond to any active shooting on campus.

UAMS Police Chief Robert Barrentine said his officers carry firearms, and several are active-shooter response instructors for other law enforcement. “In this kind of situation, first we would be called, and we would respond immediately,” Barrentine said. “If somebody comes in with a gun, we’re going to engage them.”

In the meantime, the sirens would be activated, email and text alerts would go out and announcements would be made on hallway address systems and on digital signs in heavy-traffic areas like cafeterias. The goal is to convey the threat to all of the 8,000 Little Rock employees, 2,000 students and 2,000 average daily patients and visitors — across the sprawling campus. Since the May 8 malfunction, the siren sytem has been repaired and tested regularly.

“We also work closely with the media to get the word out,” Vice Chancellor Leslie Welch Taylor said. “Our clinical folks know what to do for patients and staff. UAMS is a safe place, and we keep the best interest of students, patients, visitors and staff in mind. We want people to know they can come here, get an education and the best care and never worry about safety from violence.”

Taylor said that all new employees receive active shooter response training during orientation and that all staff members and students are informed on best procedures.

“Just this year, our police department has made 30 active shooter presentations to 3,200 employees and students,” Barrentine said. “We’ve also had 642 employees trained online by [UAMS’] Occupational Health & Safety.”

Judy Williams, associate vice chancellor for communications and marketing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said the higher education world has emphasized mass shooting preparedness since the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed and 17 wounded in the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.

UALR, like UAMS, has an armed, trained police force and an emergency alert system that employs texts, emails, phone calls and an on-the-ground speaker system. “All our officers are highly trained, and they lead the way in offering active shooter training for staff, faculty and students.”

Training isn’t mandatory for UALR’s 12,000 students and nearly 2,000 employees, Williams said, but “all residence assistants, housing directors and housing administrators receive active shooter training.” About 1,400 students live on campus, Williams said.

Private Businesses

An armed response by on-site security officers would be costly and impractical for most private businesses, but security consultant and firearms trainer Robert Jennings, who founded Get Trained Be Ready, offers other options for fighting firearms with firearms.

“We sometimes try to narrow things down to an individual level,” said Jennings, who teaches Combat Focus Shooting and counter-ambush measures for concealed-carry permit holders. “Two or three guys who work in this office, or a dozen or so members of that church. We’re trying to get these folks trained” to engage a shooter, he said.

“Businesses are increasingly reviewing whether to allow employees to conceal carry,” Jennings continued. “All our data shows the faster that somebody who is armed and trained can engage, the sooner it’s over.

“So on the small-business level, owners are starting to allow the staff to carry, and we see them being interested in counter-ambush training. How can I as one armed person defend myself and my co-workers? One armed person can make a tremendous difference.”

Police professionals like Barrentine, however, caution that more gunmen might equal more confusion. “The problem is that the police might not know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy,” Barrentine said.

Lt. John Breckon of the North Little Rock Police Department, who has taught active shooter response courses at government offices, businesses, warehouses and factories, said that an armed person confronting a shooter faces daunting choices. “Is there a backstop? If not, do I shoot anyway? Can I hold the gun still enough while adrenaline is pouring through my system?”

Breckon said that studies have shown that trained police officers fire several rounds for every round that hits its target. He added that businesses might face liability issues if an employee’s shots go astray, and that many mass shooters have been minors, including one who was 11. “Are you mentally prepared to shoot someone? A child?”

Yet Jennings, a National Rifle Association instructor who began offering concealed-carry training a decade ago, said that a trained and armed defender could neutralize the threat before officers arrive. “The whole time a shooter is active in a gun-free zone, people are still being shot.”

He summarized with a familiar Old West saying about Samuel Colt, developer of the Colt revolver: “God made men; Sam Colt made them equal.”

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