Little more than a block from the location of the Discovery Channel hostage crisis this past summer, AlliedBarton and ASIS International's suburban Maryland chapter held a workplace violence seminar to preach preparedness.
SILVER SPRING, Md - On the afternoon of September 1, radical environmentalist James Lee walked into the lobby of Discovery Channel headquarters from the scorching heat with five improvised explosive and incendiary devices strapped to his body. Immediately taking three hostages, Lee engaged in a tense stand-off with police. Nearly four hours later, a police SWAT team neutralized Lee, his victims escaping with their lives.
Four months later and a little more than a block from the scene, security professionals, risk managers, and human resources personnel crowded into a room at the Silver Spring Civic Center to learn lessons from that day as well as to discuss ways to prevent and respond to incidents of workplace violence and active shooter situations.
Organized by AlliedBarton Security Services and the suburban Maryland chapter of ASIS International, the frequently repeated message of the seminar was that no workplace is immune from violence.
"It can happen to you," Allied Barton Division President Ron Rabena said. His warning was made all the more powerful by Rabena's personal experience: his father was murdered during a workplace violence incident years ago.
Within the United States, there are an average of 2 million incidents of workplace violence every year, costing businesses an estimated $70 billion a year, according to Daman Toth, a district manager at AlliedBarton. Females are especially vulnerable, with homicide the leading cause of death for women in the workplace.
There is a sliver of light, however, behind these grim statistics. Since the mid-80s, workplace homicides have dropped by more than 50 percent. Toth credited this development to businesses educating, training, and preparing their employees for workplace violence incidents.
Communication is key, said Rabena, who reminded the attendees that proactive preparations for events considered unimaginable can save lives. One of the most important things a business can do, according to presenters, is get in contact with local law enforcement agencies and work together on emergency plans so employees and police know what to expect if violence erupts.
The value of preparation was illustrated during Lee's hostage situation at Discovery Channel headquarters, many presenters observed. Because Discovery had developed an evacuation plan for its employees, its 1,900 employees emerged from the incident unharmed, said Assistant Chief of Police Wayne Jerman of the Montgomery County Police Department, who personally responded to the incident that day.
Luck also played a role too: the explosives and incendiary devices rigged to a "dead man switch " did not detonate when Lee was killed. "The IED just wasn't successful," said Jerman, when asked why the devices didn't explode when Lee was killed. The FBI is still currently investigating what occurred that day.
Jerman believes Lee was a "lone wolf" that had every intention of killing people that day, citing Lee's constant dehumanization of his hostages during negotiations with police. Lee, a radical environmentalist, believed humans were a plague destroying the earth. According to Jerman, the FBI has called Lee the first known hostage-taking suicide bomber in U.S. history.
Throughout the day-long event, particular attention was paid to recognizing possible signs that an employee may snap as well as how to prevent an at-risk employee from going over the edge. One effective way an office can do that is by creating an environment where each employee is treated with dignity and respect, an informational video from the Center for Personal Protection and Safety (CPPS) advised .
Presenters and another CPPS video also explained how employees should respond during an active shooter incident when a gunman is intent on taking as many lives as possible. Among the many strategies are immediate evacuation, hiding, and, when no other option is left, fighting the armed adversary.
[For a Department of Homeland Security booklet on responding to an active shooter situation, click here (.pdf).]
When police arrive on the scene and enter a workplace to neutralize the threat, employees must also know what to do to avoid unintentionally putting themselves in harm's way, explained Dave Crawford, who recently retired as chief of police of the Laurel Police Department in southern Maryland.
"When the SWAT team shows up, they can't tell the good guys from the bad guys," he said.
During an active shooter situation, employees that run into police should always keep their hands up, not make any sudden movements, and obey police officer commands. Unlike a hostage situation, the police's mission during an active shooter is to neutralize the threat before the assailant can take more lives.
If employees don't follow police orders during an active shooter situation, "it could be a catastrophic mistake," Crawford said.
♦ Photo of Discovery Communications' lobby by krossbow/Flickr
CORRECTION: The original article stated Lee had four improvised incendiary and explosive devices strapped to his body. Actually it was five, four incendiary devices and one pipe bomb. The text has been corrected to reflect the correct number of devices.