Taking a Fire Prevention Approach to Active Shooter Preparedness

Over the past couple of months, our team has been working with a number of K-12 schools to revisit plans and strategies in the wake of the Newtown massacre. While our instinct is often to “fight the last battle,” (i.e. prepare for the last incident, despite the multitude of other threats) this may not be the best approach. These incidents are wake-up calls that remind us of the vulnerability of our schools and in particular, of K-12 schools. The challenge we run into time and time again is how to better secure campuses which are often, by design, open. There are incremental measures that can be taken that can improve school security, which everyone should be committed to taking. While some involve the sort of systems we deal with at Urban Alarm, there are many that require no system and cost little to nothing.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were thousands of child fatalities due to fires on K-12 campuses. Since the 1950s, there have been none. This is a testament to what is possible when there is a multi-faceted commitment to solve a problem. So, what changed the equation, and thereby saved hundreds of thousands of lives? The simple answer is that, in compliance with regulations, fire alarm systems were installed. And that has been an important part of the solution. But it goes well beyond fire alarms.

The tide turned in the middle of the century. New fire detection and notification technology was invented, which allowed for early detection and immediate campus-wide notification. Building and fire codes were established that made fire prevention and evacuation a non-negotiable priority for every school. These codes made every aspect of schools safer --  including fire resistance material, ease of egress, containment strategies (e.g. fire stops throughout the structure), monthly fire drills, and more.  

Fire and building codes continue to evolve. Why do they change despite the undeniable decrease in people dying as a result of fire? Because we should always look to incorporate everything we learn to further minimize the risk of fatalities -- especially when it comes to the places our children spend the majority of their time.

We are now presented with a problem that today causes exponentially more fatalities in K-12 campuses than fire. Active shooter threats warrant the same thoroughness and commitment we invest in fire prevention. We need to evaluate how people enter schools, how active shooter incidents are contained, what materials are used, and how drills are implemented. The same fundamental framework that changed the equation for the threat of fire should be applied to mitigating the potential impact of an active shooter.

These are not the only measures to be taken, of course. We still need to address cultural pressures, mental health, firearms, and other factors, and the experts in those fields must think long and hard about their approach. But as an electronic security and life safety systems expert, I see that there is a clear path toward what will have a lasting and wide impact.

Urban Alarm has been meeting with Schools in the DC Metro Area to discuss their security and life safety strategies. To arrange a visit to your institution, please contact Miles Fawcett at 202.265.2700 x111.