Workplace Safety: Addressing the Active Shooter in Commercial Interiors

Interior Architect, Michelle Reyman, explains how to secure your space from an active shooter situation. 

The Fox Architects office – Image by Ron Blunt Photography

According to the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit organization that tallies gun violence incidents across the United States, there were approximately 340 mass shootings (defined as four or more victims in one location) in 2018. Of those 340 incidents, two were categorized as ‘workplace shootings (disgruntled employee).’ An additional 59 incidents were recorded that involved gun violence in the workplace, 14 of which were incidents categorized as workplace shootings with no victims (shots fired). While the likelihood of being a victim of an active shooter in the workplace is relatively low in comparison to other locations, there has been growing concern over the past few years from employers and employees over the safety of the workplace.

As an interior architect in the Washington, D.C. market, I have had my share of experience in designing for high security office space. However, I am finding that more and more of my corporate office clients are starting to ask about how to secure their space from an active shooter. Many of these clients are working within a limited construction budget, typically just the tenant improvement allowance, and won’t have the funds available to incorporate the level of security that is typical of an embassy or other highly protected facility. There is a plethora of information available to designers on the design of high security environments, but very little guidance on how to design a standard commercial office space to survive an active shooter.

The solution that most organizations are currently utilizing is a combination of preventative measures, standard security systems and response training for staff. Preventative measures include training employees to be aware of potential behavioral warning signs such as hostile behavior, dramatic shifts in attitude toward others, and other psychological signs that an individual may be deteriorating in a manner that could lead to violence. Standard security systems may include access control for entry doors and elevators, security cameras and in some cases intercom systems. Response training has increased in popularity and includes employee training on how to respond in the event of an active shooter in the workplace. According to the Department of Homeland Security, who publishes active shooter response guidance, this entails a plan of ‘Run, Hide then Fight’. The focus being to run if possible, hide if necessary and as a last resort attempt to disable the shooter. The purpose is to stay alive until law enforcement can arrive on the scene.

In the age of the open office, with benching and extensive use of glass, hiding becomes a bit of a challenge. Even in our office, there aren’t a ton of options. Benching style workstations with limited storage and open legs, provide about the same level of shelter as a table. Glass walls around conference rooms can be easily shot through. There are no offices. It’s only in the very back of the space that we have some storage closets and a wellness room that would hardly fit our entire staff. Since they are directly adjacent to the exit stair, one would hope that most of the staff would be able to escape the suite entirely.

Our situation is common. It isn’t bad design, it’s good design that promotes a healthy, collaborative workplace – which happens to be in juxtaposition to what would be ideal for this specific threat. Most modern offices will be faced with the same challenges in addressing an active shooter in the space.

What are ways that we could incorporate active shooter security architecturally, in the modern office and maintain the aspects of the space that we value, like visual openness and access to natural light?

Designing to Resist Intruders

Let’s being at the entrance. The goal is to prevent entry or at least slow down the movement of the assailant until law enforcement can arrive. The location of the entrance varies depending on the type of building the tenant is in. In some cases, the entry is at ground level and directly accessible from the exterior. In other situations, the suite may be located on an upper floor of a multi-tenant office building. In the latter case, there may or may not be the option to add access controls to elevators and stairwells which can help in reducing the accessibility of the suite.

If the option exists to have access control at the entrance to the space, a locked door will provide some resistance to an intruder. If the entrance is glass, it can be shot out or broken to gain entry. Bullet resistant glazing can be cost prohibitive for most office tenants. Laminated glass and certain security window films have been tested to provide some level of fortification, though certainly not at the same level of ballistic resistant glazing. This could be an economically feasible option if the area of glass is not extensive. Consider the amount of glass at the entrance. A solid drywall partition, while certainly not bullet resistant, will give the appearance of being more secure and the shooter will be less likely to attempt entry through a solid partition. It is important to note, that there is no such thing as bullet proof glass. All forms of glazing will eventually fail with repeated assault.

A security system will help in identifying the existence of the intruder. If the office does not have a receptionist or security guard, then a camera that is monitored would be helpful. Often a panic button can be installed at the reception desk which allows the receptionist to notify law enforcement of an emergency simply by pushing it. Since the receptionist is the first person to encounter the assailant, providing him or her with a place to safely hide is essential. Consider designing the reception desk to be a quick shelter for this person. A desk with a solid front panel that goes to the floor and panels or storage on either side, so a person can effectively hide. If budget allows, a bullet resistant fiberglass panel can be added behind the decorative finish of the desk.

An intercom system that allows for instructions to be given to employees on how to evacuate can be very effective in improving survivability. By notifying staff of the situation, as opposed to a standard alarm, individuals can accelerate their evacuation to a safe location.

Assuming the shooter has made it past the receptionist and is moving toward the work areas, anything that can be done to slow down or impede that movement, gives more time for staff to take shelter. Obstructions, such as doors, partitions or screens that the shooter would have to walk around, basically anything other than a straight path, can help pick up valuable seconds. Orienting the architectural elements in a manner that creates a less direct route, can provide added security.

Providing easily accessible areas for employees to take refuge is also essential. When planning the layout of the space, look at options to include closed spaces adjacent to work areas, such as private huddle rooms that can be locked from in the inside. The use of glass at these locations would hinder the ability of employees to use it as a safe hiding spot, so it’s use should be limited to areas that are not in a person’s sight line or not used at all.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a multi-disciplinary approach to deterring crime through the design of the built environment. It has historically been implemented on an urban planning scale in the design of communities. While not directly applicable to the design of commercial office space, it does provide guidance in how the built environment can affect and hopefully deter criminal actions, which can be helpful information for a designer.

Do you have ideas for ways to incorporate active shooter security into the commercial office space? Please feel free to share them in the comment section below. Hopefully by creating an open dialogue, we as an industry can develop better solutions for our clients.

Additional Information:

More from Michelle Reyman, AIA, LEED AP

3 Comments

  • Michelle,
    Thank you for this article. I’m in the business of helping companies prevent or minimize exposure to workplace violence. We do this through self defense training programs, including “When Terminations Go Wrong.
    I’m happy to see an architect thinking of ways in which companies can create security for their offices.
    Although we don’t focus on shooters (I have strategic partners who do) our biggest goal is to have people start realizing that they must take some different actions in order to be prepared for what might happen. It’s a changing world and taking steps to limit damage is key.

    Thanks for thinking outside the box and making some terrific suggestions here.

    Debbie Pickus

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