Defending Against an Active Shooter at Your Athletic Facility


An active shooter is defined by the federal government as "an individual engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area, typically through the use of firearms." Active-shooter incidents in the United States have increased exponentially from 2000 to 2013, and over the past seven years the U.S. has averaged 16.4 active-shooter incidents per year, which equates to roughly one every three weeks.

A research study completed by Blair and Martindale in 2013 reviewed 84 active-shooter incidents from 2001 to 2010 and found that business locations, schools and outdoor public venues — in that order — were the most frequent places for an active-shooter incident. In addition, the study found that in 51 percent of incidents, police arrived while the attack was in progress. As such, it is important that all staff are trained and prepared to respond quickly and efficiently to protect both themselves and those around them.

While preparing for an active shooter can be overwhelming, the potential for decreasing catastrophic casualties makes it vital for every facility operator. Key components must be considered when creating an action plan to best fit your facility. This includes identifying individuals/departments that can assist, developing a plan that works for your location and providing proper training for all staff.

PANIC ROOM The University of Houston put its emergency action plan into motion when there was a report of an active shooter at its campus recreation and wellness center in 2012. (Photo Courtesy of University of Houston) - Click to enlargePANIC ROOM The University of Houston put its emergency action plan into motion when there was a report of an active shooter at its campus recreation and wellness center in 2012. (Photo Courtesy of University of Houston) - Click to enlarge

Government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation offer training tools, materials and information to assist with formulating a response plan. In addition, local and state law enforcement agencies have also begun to develop their own training and materials that can be utilized. DHS has an interactive online course titled, "Active Shooter: What You Can Do," which focuses on responding should the situation arise. In addition to this course, there is a handbook with the same title that offers complementary information.

After reviewing material resources, reaching out to local law enforcement agencies such as police, fire and EMS for assistance is another step worth taking. Many local law enforcement agencies are willing to assist in the review of an emergency action plan, provide practical training, and potentially participate in live drills.

It is most beneficial to seek specific agencies that will respond to a situation at your location. For example, the University of Houston's Department of Campus Recreation turned to the UH Police Department and emergency response teams to help develop its plan.

Click to enlargeClick to enlarge


A formal emergency action plan (EAP) should describe each individual's responsibility in an emergency, and should specifically include how to respond to an active-shooter incident. The steps for responding to an active shooter will differ depending on the location of the shooter; for example, whether he or she is within the actual facility or the vicinity of the facility.

In the event that there is an active shooter within the vicinity but not inside the facility, the facility should be placed on lockdown. This requires staff to lock all exterior doors, direct patrons to secure locations out of sight, and wait for direction from local law enforcement. In the event an active shooter has penetrated the facility itself, the plan should outline options for response. The University of Houston Department of Campus Recreation chose the Department of Homeland Security's RUN, HIDE, FIGHT action plan (right).

Once a plan is established, ask key partners to review and make recommendations as appropriate. This may include having the local police department review the plan to ensure that it is in line with the department's own response plan. This helps ensure that all parties work cooperatively and efficiently in an active-shooter incident.

After a plan is created, all staff must be trained in how to respond utilizing the steps outlined in the EAP. Training should be progressive, and planning should consist of identifying your audience, providing audience members with knowledge and skills, and finally providing an opportunity to demonstrate understanding. All staff members who may need to respond, both in protecting themselves and patrons, should be included in training.

Training for all staff should first be basic and begin with a review of the EAP. It should ensure everyone has a solid understanding of his or her role, address special considerations that apply to your facility and emphasize the potential magnitude of an active-shooter situation. The actual training may include presentations, review of written material, training videos and/or guided discussions.

When determining what to include, the following should be taken into consideration:
• Where are the two closest exits?
• What is in the workspace that could be used as a weapon?
• Where can staff and participants hide? Do you need a key to access the hiding space and, if so, who has the key? Can doors be secured from the inside?
• What is the physical space in your facility like? Is there a lot of glass, open spaces or high visibility?
• Do emergency exits have an alarm or a delay before opening?

Upon completion of basic training, guest speakers including law enforcement officials can assist in broadening the knowledge base. Topics such as how law enforcement responds and what to expect are beneficial, as the response of officers is much different in an active-shooter incident than any other type of emergency.

Also, depending on the audience, a tabletop exercise may be effective. This is more valuable in small groups in which individuals have the opportunity to discuss with one another the response steps they would take while information about a situation is being delivered to them. The level of staff involvement is another variable to consider when planning progressive trainings. Full-time staff members typically have more experience and greater responsibilities, requiring a different training focus than part-time staff.

Once staff members understand the plan, an important next step is to have them demonstrate their understanding through practice. This can be accomplished through small group scenarios or live drills. The University of Houston Department of Campus Recreation completed a drill with all student staff in which a designated professional staff member acted as the shooter, and staff members who were hit with dodgeballs had to lie on the ground.

Once the drill was completed and all staff returned to the facility, those who had been hit remained on the ground while their coworkers walked past. This created a powerful scene for staff to see their coworkers and friends as victims; many expressed discomfort with it even though they knew it was not real. The drill was then followed by a debrief to critique the response and to allow staff to ask questions.

Few organizations encounter actual active-shooter incidents that initiate a full emergency response by multiple law enforcement agencies without suffering any casualties. No facility is immune to the possibility of such horrific incidents, so it is the duty of all facility operators to ensure that a plan is developed to provide the best chance for survival.


On November 14, 2012, an active-shooter incident occurred at the University of Houston Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. Student staff enacted the EAP and documented the incident, which turned out to be a false alarm.

Following the incident, the department further modified its EAP and intensified training for all staff. Some specific lessons learned from that incident included:

• Do not use codes as a means of communication. They are confusing for staff and emergency officials, and may delay the response. Instead, use "plain speak" by stating exactly what is occurring.

• If two-way radios are used for communication, create a centralized process for storage and dissemination.

• Staff communication with patrons must convey the urgency of the situation.

• Staff must not only know the location of emergency exits, but must practice using them.

(Photo Courtesy of the University of Houston)(Photo Courtesy of the University of Houston)



The Department of Homeland Security's RUN, HIDE, FIGHT action plan should be implemented in the following recommended sequence:

• If there is an accessible path, attempt to evacuate
• Identify an escape route and plan
• Run in zig-zag pattern
• Evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow
• Leave belongings behind
• Help others escape, if possible
• Prevent individuals from entering the facility or the area
• Keep hands visible
• Follow the instructions of police officers
• Do not attempt to move the wounded

• Be out of the active shooter's view
• Seek protection if shots are fired in your direction
• Pick a spot that will not trap you or restrict your movements
• Lock the door
• Blockade the door with heavy items
• Silence your cell phone and/or pager
• Turn off any source of noise, including radios and televisions
• Hide behind large items, such as cabinets and desks
• Stay low

• Take action
• Disrupt and/or incapacitate
• Act aggressively
• Throw items
• Use improvised weapons, such as weights, bats, chairs, etc.
• Yell, scream, poke, scratch, bite, etc.
• Commit to your actions — it's your life, or theirs
• Spread out and attack from different angles

Kim Clark is director of campus recreation at the University of Houston. Rachel O'Mara is the assistant director, aquatics, for the Department of Campus Recreation at the University of Houston. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Gameday Security with the title "Hard Target."

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