Preparation: Don’t cross the line of traumatization

Training for active shooter scenarios saves lives, but some drills can go too far
By: | November 6, 2019
Scene from an active shooter drill at New Milford High School in New Jersey

Dean Waddell is a Sr. Loss Control Consultant in Keenan’s Loss Control/Risk Management Department.

Active shooter incidents in schools, workplaces and public venues erupt, too regularly, as shocking reminders of the vulnerability to violence.

Through the first nine months of 2019, a 50% increase in mass shootings have been reported, with at least 21 this year compared to 14 in the corresponding period in 2018.

Three of the 2019 incidents took place in California (Palm Springs, San Jose and Los Angeles). Across the country, small towns are affected as well as larger cities.

Training and preparation for the possibility of an active killer certainly saves lives. One survivor of the October 2018 Las Vegas massacre reported how such training helped them make it through the sudden chaos of that tragedy. Participation in drills at the facility where people work or attend school is a key factor in gaining situational awareness for responding effectively to a violent event.

Realistic drills

Both adults and children need to know what to do to best protect themselves, and administrators and others in authority must be clear on the steps necessary to save lives. In attempting to train people for active killer incidents, some schools and organizations have conducted realistic drills. While making training authentic improves preparation to some degree, drills that are too realistic can be extremely traumatizing.

Realistic drills using “soft” projectiles frequently result in a variety of injuries from bruises to post traumatic stress.

Some approaches to active killer training have included showing video of actual events, exposing the group to sounds of live gunfire (usually by law enforcement officers firing blank rounds), even participants being shot with plastic projectiles. Those who have been through such drills are often significantly traumatized and may be less prepared for an actual incident. An employee, student or community member does not need to be trained the way a law enforcement officer might need.

Active killer training and drills should not become opportunities for workplace injuries and potential liabilities to the organization. Realistic drills using “soft” projectiles frequently result in a variety of injuries from bruises to post traumatic stress. Training that results in confusion and panic have led to serious trip and fall injuries, fractures and head trauma. Training conduct should always be viewed from a risk management perspective, during planning, scheduling and implementation.

Children can be especially susceptible to traumatic impacts from active shooter and lockdown drills, even when they are told it is just a drill. Many kids see the news reports about school shootings and react very emotionally to simulated lockdowns, exhibiting the same response as those who have been in real lockdown incidents.


Read: Active shooter drills: Best practices for K12 school safety


All participants in active killer preparations, both adults and children, need to be carefully assessed for suitability to the training to be conducted, including emotional maturity, personal history, physical condition and other special needs. Advance planning, community communication and coordination with local emergency agencies are essential. Individuals who choose to opt-out of more intensive drills should be provided with comparable instruction on what to do without going through simulated activities.

Whenever possible, involve the assistance of school psychologists or other mental health professionals in the planning and assessment, and to assist in identifying training participants who show signs of trauma during the drills. Following the completion of training, mental health support should be provided to anyone who needs aftercare.

Dean Waddell is a Sr. Loss Control Consultant in Keenan’s Loss Control/Risk Management Department. He is based in our Torrance office and serves as a principal consultant in the deployment of Keenan’s IMReady (Incident Management Ready) resources to prepare client organizations to respond to violent emergencies and natural disasters.