The First 30 Seconds

A foreseeable and preventable mass casualty loss of human life can take place in the first minute of a crisis event if all campus employees have not been specifically empowered, trained, and allowed to take immediate life-saving action without contacting a supervisor. This is what I commonly refer to as “permission to live.” 

Many fatal campus crisis situations involve critical of delays in the implementation of life-saving action steps such as room clear, lockdown, sheltering from severe weather, reverse evacuation, or other critical action steps. Catastrophic plan failure can rapidly occur in institutions that have spent vast sums of money, time, and energy on crisis planning but have not properly empowered, trained, and otherwise prepared campus employees. 

For example, in more than 1,500 simulations with individual campus staff using video and scripted campus crisis scenarios and scoring instruments, we have found that campus employees miss the action step for implementing a lockdown for more than 70 percent of all situations that require one, if the situation depicted is not an active shooter incident. The research indicates that this is largely due to the overemphasis on active shooter situations in plans, training, drills, and exercises. 

In the 1958 Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts School fire, no staff member pulled the fire alarm for an estimated five minutes after the fire was discovered. By the time the last victim died at the hospital, 95 students and staff died. As with the majority of institutions of higher learning today, fire drills at the school were always initiated by an administrator pulling the fire alarm rather than by having rank-and-file employees pull the alarm after prompting by an administrator. The research on how the human brain works under stress reveals why many staff members in the school were inadvertently conditioned not to evacuate until the principal pulled the alarm.  
Common Indicators Can Be Missed
Based on reviews of a number of actual incidents as well as structured simulations with campus employees, we have identified some common indicators that line-level campus employees are more likely to miss, in turn missing the chance to save human lives:
  • Crisis plans that have been purchased or copied — “a plan in a can.” These often fail because they do not adequately address local conditions and resources.
  • Web-based school crisis planning components for line-level campus staff. These have a very high fail rate because they do not work the way the human brain functions under stress. Extensive research by the U.S. military demonstrated that the human brain could often perform faster than a software 
system for pattern matching and recognition and life-or-death decision-making.
  • One-page or two-page crisis plan components — These also have a high fail rate because they do not provide an adequate base of experience for life-or-death decision making.
  • Attempting to use one plan component for a wide variety of campus staff. This is because a dean, professor, custodian, and food service worker all should be expected to perform different action steps in the same crisis event.
Strategies to Prepare for Success
Success strategies that are based on research, evaluation, and assessment include:
  • Role-specific crisis plan components — plan components tailored to various primary categories of campus employees, such as cabinet officials, faculty members, facilities personnel, and resident advisors.
  • Staff development approaches that emphasize empowerment of employees to take immediate life-saving action.
  • Designing drills that require all staff to prepare to make life-or-death decisions.
  • The regular use of mental simulation — activities that help staff see the crisis, simulate the actions they would take in the first 30 seconds, and succeed in their resolution of the crisis.
  • Training and practice in controlled breathing techniques, which have been proven to lower heart rate and improve the ability to perform mentally under extreme stress.
Granting and instilling permission to live for staff faced with an immediate life-or-death crisis situation is relatively easy compared with many things that institutions currently do to prepare for crisis situations. It also happens to be a life-or-death matter. 

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at