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LEGAL ISSUES

Practical Steps to Keeping Your Employees Safe: Tips From a Security Expert

The tragedy at Sandy Hook raises important questions about workplace violence. Michael O'Neil, a founder of the NYPD Counterterrorism Division, weighs in on keeping employees safe.

MSA Security's Intel Center in New York City.

Michael O'Neil, president of MSA Security.

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The world watched in horror last week as Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary and took the lives of 26 innocent civilians. About 65 miles south of Newtown, in his Manhattan office, Michael O'Neil was sickened by what he saw on the news. It was a tragedy all too familiar to O'Neil, a 22-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, who recently retired from his post as the first Commanding Officer of the NYPD Counterterrorism Division, which he helped create after September 11, 2001.

"This active-shooter phenomenon has been growing and the consequences seem to get larger after each episode," he says. "Education about this threat is a big part in preparing for it. You need to get your employees to think, God forbid, this thing happens, what are we going to do?"

O'Neil is now the president of MSA Security, a premier security services firms headquartered in New York City with nearly 600 employees stationed around the world. The company consults with a range of clients, from private firms to government offices, advising facility managers about how to make their workplaces safer, or, at the very least, how to "harden the structure" to make it more difficult for a dangerous individual to gain entry. The company also happens to own the largest fleet of privately-owned bomb-sniffing dogs in North America (about 200) stationed at government institutions, sports stadiums, transportation hubs and large corporations. O'Neil spoke with Inc.'s Eric Markowitz about what, if anything, a company can do to keep employees safe.

This is a subject that's not easy for many people to talk about.
Well, it's an important subject right now. Whether it's Aurora, or the most recent event in Sandy Hook, it's not an easy threat to defend against. They could outlaw guns tomorrow, and there are still 300 million firearms in this country. Everybody who does an event like this is mentally unstable, and it's devastating. Someone can walk into any crowded place and you can really have a devastating impact.

If you were to walk into an office--really any office or facility--what would be the first thing you'd do to mitigate a risk like this?
The first thing to do is to get your employees in a classroom and find an expert who can speak about this type of threat. The typical active shooter event lasts 15 minutes. About 12-to-15 minutes.

Say, "Let's talk about what we’re going to do for those 12-to-15 minutes until the police get here." When the police get here, it will be over. Either he'll take his life, or the police will stop the threat. But you need to think about what you're going to do in those 12-to-15 minutes. As a facility manager, or someone that's in charge, I would look at the facility and say: "How can I harden this structure? Can someone just walk into my facility? Are they challenged? What's my access and egress points? What's my identification procedure?"

There are simple, little things to create a hostile environment for a bad guy. If you have 10 doors in your facility, ask if they're locked.

This isn't a new argument, but it's one that's resurfaced recently: Instead of more gun control, some people believe we should give guns and gun training to teachers, office workers, and the like. How do you feel about this?
Here's what I'll say to that. Having an armed, trained professional is very helpful to address a threat like this. But that's serious business, carrying a firearm. You train someone, but how are they going to react in a time of crisis? I'm not sure I'm for that. If that's a decision you want to make, then you need to have someone who has years of experience and knows how to use the firearm in a crisis situation. I don't know if introducing firearms to inexperienced people is the best thing to do, regardless of how much training they receive on how to use the firearm.

Of course, there isn't going to be one answer in this situation, if there's even an answer at all. But mental health, in my opinion, is something that needs to be addressed in some way. How can a company identify employees that may need help?
One of the things we teach companies is to have an open line of communication with their HR department. The "mentally unstable" part of this is an issue with an active shooter, but you also have workplace violence issues. Someone gets fired, they're not happy, and then they come back to the workplace and they're going to shoot up the place. That's where you really could see the HR stepping up. Around the time you let someone go, there should be a checklist of questions--ask: "Did he make any threats?" In other words, you want to create a profile of the person to see if he's someone you should be concerned about.  We have companies call us all the time who say "We just let go of an employee, he's made threats to us," and they'll ask for three armed guys. It's smart. It's a proactive approach. But again, it's not just one answer.

All offices are mandated by OSHA to complete fire drills. Is there any type of drill a company can do to prepare for this worst-case scenario, active-shooter event?
You need to look at your physical security plan and say, "Are we vulnerable to this type of attack? Can they get in here easily? If they do get in, how do we limit the damage to this attack? Do we have a fortified structure we could move employees into to delay his ability to hurt us?" You need to keep thinking about the 15 minutes.

Here's an interesting point. Do your employees even know what a firearm sounds like? A shot goes off, do they even know what that is? How are they going to react to that? It's an interesting thing. Seconds mean everything. You need to ask yourself, "what are you doing to do?"

If you only had a few minutes to consult with a company CEO, what would you tell him or her about keeping employees safe?
You need to be thinking about three things:  Evacuate, hide, or fight. I trained undercover officers. I'd always tell them that you need a will-to-survive mindset. I don't care if you've been shot 15 times, the mindset should always be: "I want too win, I want to live."

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Dec 20, 2012




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