Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Assess Your Plans

Have your life-saving approaches been properly tested?

Bloodletting sounded like a good idea to many doctors. However, when they began to actually test the results of bloodletting, they learned that it increased rather than reduced the chances that a patient would die. We have seen this dynamic in medicine, law enforcement, the military, fire service, emergency management and other life-or-death fields. Would our nation’s medical schools change emergency medical procedures taught to students because half of their doctors thought they sounded good, even though they had never conducted a single clinical evaluation of the procedures?

Higher education leaders, safety and security directors, police chiefs and local public safety officials have told us that they are confused by dramatic changes in approaches to campus safety each time there is a catastrophic, mass casualty act of violence. While valuable lessons have been learned from each major event, countless changes that have been made based on assumptions about have proven over time not to be correct.

This can also pose major operational problems for campus administrators. For example, a university president who makes these types of changes after major events may have to:

  1. Spend time revising the plans five times in two years.
  2. Spend money reprinting 4,600 emergency plans for employees.
  3. Dedicate time to issue the 4,600 plan components to employees.
  4. Dedicate precious and extremely limited staff time to retrain 4,600 employees.
  5. Experience a loss of confidence of staff and students who cannot understand why their leaders and public safety officials cannot make up their minds about these matters.
  6. Face legal, political and moral consequences when theoretical concepts cause, rather than prevent, death in an actual incident.

Test Before Implementation

Major shifts in campus safety, security and emergency preparedness concepts should be carefully vetted before they are implemented. The following approaches can reduce the problems associated with updating and changing campus security and emergency preparedness approaches.

  • Focus on instigating approaches that have been evaluated to provide evidence that they actually work. Independent evaluations can be especially important. If someone is selling you something, he may be highly motivated to focus on creating “proof” that it works rather than actually proving whether it is effective or not.

  • Vet major changes with fire service and emergency management personnel, as well as with law enforcement. A number of concepts that have been advocated for active shooter situations — based on the advice of law enforcement officers — have been proven by extensive research in other disciplines to be dangerous.

  • Independently test new concepts with your own simulations before they are implemented. Using drills; tabletop, functional and full-scale exercises and; perhaps most importantly; one-onone simulations can yield surprising and even disturbing results far different from those anticipated. As we have seen with many active shooter training concepts, people can perform in dramatically different ways than anticipated in training. One-on-one simulations can be especially revealing, because some concepts that work well when a team approach to practice is utilized fail badly when tested in this more realistic manner.

  • Apply the proven concept of problem seeking used by architects to identify potential problems before making major changes. Architects are formally trained to challenge their own designs by actively seeking out any flaws as a formal process.

  • Conduct pre-mortem exercises to identify potential flaws. This research-based concept was recognized by a Nobel Peace Prize and is a powerful tool to aid organizations in not adopting flawed approaches. By conducting a structured, interactive activity where participants are asked to presume that an approach has failed totally, participants are often able to spot and identify previously unidentified and significant problems with the approach.

More than 100 mass casualty campus deaths that have taken place when theoretical concepts that appeared to be fine were proven to be deadly by actual events. From six school employees who have been killed trying to disarm people to 95 students and staff who died because a school principal was the person who activated the fire alarm nine times a year for monthly fire drills, many deaths have occurred when unproven approaches have been implemented. We are long overdue for implementing what we know works rather than what we hope will work.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

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