Meeting Mentor Magazine

October 2019

How to Prepare for a Planner’s Worst Nightmare

The recent mass shootings — outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio; at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; and at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif. — are sadly just the latest in a long line of active shooter incidents in the U.S. And they are yet more evidence that nowhere is safe from lone gunmen intent on killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

While the chances of a mass shooter targeting your event are still fairly remote, it is another scenario that savvy planners are adding to their risk management plans. At a session during this year’s Meeting Professionals International (MPI) World Education Congress, held in June in Toronto, meetings industry attorney and university professor Tyra Warner Hilliard, Ph.D., CMP, along with David Lau, U.S. Army (retired), now a counterterrorism and security professional who delivers training to federal agencies, detailed five best practices planners can use to, as Lau said, “stay left of the bang.”

1. Know how to get out. Learn where the exits are for each of your session rooms, Lau said. And remember that “two is one, one is none,” meaning if there’s only one exit and it’s blocked by the intruder, you’re not getting out through it.

Warner Hilliard added that you need to know if you need a keycard to unlock any of the exit doors, although an audience member said that emergency exit doors will automatically unlock in most venues if someone pulls the fire alarm. Warner Hilliard also stressed the importance of ensuring that your room sets don’t inhibit access to any of the exits in the room.

2. Know the venue’s emergency plan. Or at least as much of it as the management is willing to share. While many venues are loath to share their full-blown emergency procedures, some are more willing now than they had been to share enough for planners to create their own plan, said an audience member. Ask the venue for an evacuation plan and information on all emergency exits, and add the number and location of exits to your site-visit checklist, Lau suggested.

“If they don’t want to give you their entire protocol, I get that,” said Warner Hilliard, since that would play right into the hands of anyone planning something nefarious. It would help that person to figure out, “I can plant one little incendiary device here and get everyone to evacuate, then I’ll plant the big one in the evacuation path,” she added. “But ask for enough information so you know what to do in the case of an emergency” and can convey to attendees information such as where the postevacuation assembly point is, how to recognize staff, and how to let the organizer know you made it to safety.

Safety and security expert Alan Kleinfeld, a member of MPI’s Security & Risk Management Task Force who was trained in event security by the Department of Homeland Security, added that it can help to ask about specific scenarios. “What happens if the fire alarm goes off, or if there’s a weather event?” he said. Have them walk you through each specific hypothetical.

3. Be ready to get creative. If there’s only one way out and it’s blocked, “Don’t be limited by a lack of creativity,” said Lau. “Most buildings in North America are made of sheetrock, so you may be able to punch holes with a table leg through it to make a hasty breach to get out.” If you’re agile, you also may be able to punch handholds to climb up a wall, push up a piece of the drop-tile ceiling and get out that way, he added. “Just because there isn’t a door doesn’t mean you can’t make a door.”

4. Remain situationally aware at all times. Lau emphasized that that entails learning how to read people. “A human will give off some cues when they’re preparing to do something bad,” he said. Some cues that someone is working up to committing a shooting or other bad act include:
• Flushing of the face, neck and chest, or alternatively going suddenly pale
• Heavy breathing
• Rapid blinking: “Most people blink about 12 times per minute. When they’re under stress, people blink up to 60 times per minute,” Lau said.
• Increased swallowing
• Body grooming: If they’re carrying a concealed weapon, often they can’t help but keep checking to make sure it’s still there, said Lau.
• “Checking their six,” meaning they keep furtively glancing around them to make sure no one is paying them undue attention
• Pacifying behaviors, such as physically soothing themselves by rubbing their neck or legs
• Nervous pacing
• Taking a “predator stance,” including a fixed stare

5. Practice what you would do. Think through the possibilities, and prepare yourself and your staff mentally as much as you can ahead of time, Lau said. “If you’re afraid to think about it ahead of time, you don’t want to be among the third of people who freeze” when an emergency situation arises. Also, your attendees look to you for direction on everything else, and emergency response is no different — they will follow your lead. — Sue Pelletier

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