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Are You Prepared to Communicate Effectively During an Active Shooter Event?

To help local governments prepare for the possibility of an active shooter, it’s important to have a proactive communication plan in place in the event of an active shooter event in your community.


2017 was a devastating and terrifying year for public safety officers. It brought some of the most severe, and the most devastating natural disasters in modern American history and saw the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Sadly, the Las Vegas shooting was only one of 317 active shooter events that took place last year—the equivalent of almost one shooter event for each day of the year. With 2018 just a few months in, the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida has left Americans bereft and distraught, and public safety officers desperately hoping their community is not the next to fall victim to an active shooter event.

As a public safety manager, your job is to protect citizens before, during, and after a local emergency event. No matter where your community is located, every single city, county, village, and township across the nation needs to have a plan in place in the event of a local emergency or act of terrorism. While no municipality can fully protect its citizens from dangerous situations, all are empowered to put systems in place to notify citizens when active shooters and other community threats have been identified, helping to reduce the risk of citizen exposure to life-threatening situations.

To help local governments prepare for the possibility of an active shooter, Ryan Strait, Director of Public Safety at CivicPlus® has been working to educate public safety officers and local government communication teams on the importance of having a proactive communication plan in place in the event of an active shooter event in your community.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of if a local emergency will impact your community,” said Strait, “but when.”

In this article, Strait provides tips and best practices for developing an active shooter communication plan, and explains how leveraging a mass notification system can help communities expedite life-saving information and instructions during a terror event.

The Importance of a Communication Plan

The first factor Strait urges public safety officials to understand is that every community is at risk, and every municipality needs a proactive communication plan.

“No facility or venue is completely safe from an active shooter event,” said Strait. “All public spaces are what are known as ‘soft targets,’ and many active shooter events are seemingly random with little to no warning signs that can tip off law enforcement officers before the shooting.”

With an increasing number of active shooter events occurring across the nation in colleges, schools, restaurants, shopping malls, places of worship, and even government offices, citizens fear unexpected disaster at every community corner and familiar location. Strait says that now more than ever, local governments need to invest in tools that will enable them to send actionable, multi-channel safety messages.

“It is the responsibility of civic leaders to use all available means to communicate threats, safety measures, and available safe resources to their citizens in times of emergency,” said Strait. A proactive plan is especially critical when an active shooter threat is imminent or an event is in progress.” She adds that the first step in forming a crisis plan is to ensure your community has access to one-to-one and one-to-many communication channels.

“Imagine there is an active shooter event at your local mall,” said Strait. “Contacting the media and issuing a statement will take too long when every second could mean the loss of lives. A media statement won’t happen fast enough, and it won’t reach far enough. You need direct communications methods that will send emergency messages directly into the hands of those who could be in danger.”

Strait recommends thinking of your communication strategy priorities as concentric rings around the location of the event.

“Staying with the example of an active shooter at a mall, the people you need to communicate to first are those at the mall,” said Strait. “From there, the next priority is those people who live nearby, or who are traveling near the mall, as they could be in the path of the shooter should he try to flee the scene.”

To accomplish the type of one-to-one and one-to-many, geo-targeted messaging needed to warn citizens and visitors of immediate danger quickly, Strait suggests using a mass notification system that allows messages to be distributed via text, phone, email, and social media.

Leveraging Multi-Channel Citizen Mass Communication Systems

Citizen mass communication systems allow civic leaders to quickly and efficiently communicate with citizens in times of danger or disaster. They provide a trusted, official source of safety information that keeps citizens informed at every critical stage of an emergency event, from early warnings, through event duration, and recovery. When every second counts, mass notification systems allow public safety officers to draft a single message to be distributed across multiple channels.

Strait emphasizes that it is critical to choose a mass notification system that integrates with your social media channels.

“Only about 20 percent of organizations include social media in their crisis communication plans,” she said. “Yet, 81percent of the population has at least one social networking profile, and 62 percent of adults report that they get their news from social media. Incorporating social media into your communication plan is critical to achieving a maximum reach for your message.”

Strait also suggests choosing a mass notification system that integrates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS allows for the distribution of messages to national emergency communication channels, such as the emergency alert system (EAS), weather radios, and the wireless emergency alert (EAS) system. Through the use of these non-subscription based channels, public safety officers can reach travelers and other non-citizens who may be in danger.

Communicating During an Active Shooter Event With and Without a Mass Notification System

When asked to describe how a community without a mass notification system would respond to an active shooter event, Strait explains that a manually implemented multi-channel communication strategy could take over an hour.

“Considering law enforcement are typically able to reach the scene of an active shooter event only minutes after they’re notified, a communication plan that takes an hour to implement is not acceptable,” said Strait. She breaks down the potential necessary communication steps as follows:

  • Step One: Contact the media. Public safety officials would search their files for contact information for a local media rep. It may take a few indirect attempts to reach someone in the newsroom who can assist, particularly if the active shooter event occurs outside of regular business hours. Once in contact with an appropriate resource, a public safety official would need to provide all relevant details so that the media can share the story on television and their website.
    Time investment: 15 – 20 minutes.
  • Step Two: Post a message on the local government’s website. Depending on the complexity of the community’s municipal website, this step may be something that a public safety official can accomplish, or he or she may need to get in touch with a website development vendor to post the message.
    Time investment: 5 – 20 minutes (if a needed web vendor is immediately accessible). 
  • Step Three: Post a message to social media: Public safety officials would need to log in to each social media account separately to share the emergency message. This repetitive process would likely include at least Facebook and Twitter.
    Time investment: 10 minutes. 
  • Step Four: Send a citizen email alert. In communities that have a database of citizen emails and a system that allows mass communications, public safety officials will need to draft a message, link it to an opt-in email list, test it, and then send it out to subscribers.
    Time investment: 20 – 30 minutes.
 Total time investment: 50 – 80 minutes for each communication update.

As new information becomes available, public safety officials would repeat steps one through four as many times as necessary, potentially adding hours to the process.

According to Strait, a mass notification system can accomplish greater reach that the traditional methods outlined above, and can do it in a fraction of the time. She describes a potential response plan that utilizes a mass notification system as follows:

Step one: Draft your message within your IPAWS connected mass notification interface. Ideally, you already have templated starter messages prewritten to communicate various phases of an active shooter situation. Identify the geographic region for your warning message, based on the location of the event. Test, approve, and deploy the message, notifying citizens via radio, television, mobile push notification, email, social media, and phone. Your mass notification system should include a translation feature so that all recipients can receive safety instructions, even if English is not their first language.

Send updates as new information becomes available, and to a broader audience.

Total time investment: 5 minutes for each communication update.

According to Strait, not only does leveraging a multi-channel notification system allow for more expedited communications, it enables greater reach to more citizens and travelers and more precise targeting of those in the immediate path of danger.

“In working with local governments we’ve found that you can reach 40 to 50 percent of your residents with a mass notification system that incorporates local citizen database and citizen opt-in methods,” said Strait. She adds a system with IPAWS integration amplifies that reach further. Strait explains that that 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone and can potentially be reached via the IPAWS WEA channel, 75 percent have a television subscription with access to local channels and can likely be reached via the IPAWS EAS channel, and 81 percent have at least one social networking profile.

Final Advice

According to Strait, with technology that exists to expedite life-saving instructions, local governments owe it to their citizens to utilize the most effective methods available in the event of any local emergency.

“When every second counts, civic leaders should use multiple communication channels to distribute life-saving information to citizens using a mass notification system,” said Strait. “With updates distributed as close to real-time as possible to the greatest number of citizens possible, and as targeted as possible, it is the most effective way to keep citizens safe and informed if the unthinkable occurs.”

About Ryan Strait- As the Product Director for CivicReady, Ryan’s focus is on understanding the communication challenges faced by local governments in times of disaster, and ensuring the CivicReady solution offers the most efficient, and effective capabilities to allow governments to keep citizens safe and informed.

CivicReady is the mass notification solution built specifically for local governments to communicate emergency alerts and routine information with citizens. CivicReady is a product of CivicPlus, THE integrated technology platform for local government. CivicPlus has more than 20 years of experience focused exclusively on local governmets. Over 55,000+ local government employees use CP’s software solutions. Learn more about CivicReady at and CivicPlus at