Within five minutes of entering Sandy Hook Elementary School, prosecutors say Adam Lanza fired 155 bullets, the last to end his life. Jared Lee Loughner unloaded 31 bullets in less than 30 seconds in a Tucson, Arizona shopping center before he was taken down by civilians. High bullet counts in short timelines are refueling a national debate on gun control, especially restrictions on high-capacity magazines. Yet for facility owners and their security teams, the outcome of this debate matters little.

Greater restrictions might reduce the number of incidents or loss of life on the whole, but the capability to injure incredible numbers in short time still exists. Once an active shooter opens fire, rapid response from police and personnel is the only mitigating factor.

That’s where training becomes critical—and not just for law enforcement. “We’ve had response times from 44 seconds until 20 minutes—and 20 minutes is a long time to wait for law enforcement while something like this is going on,” Jim McGinty, vice president of training and safety at Covenant Security Services, told me.  “Whatever the entity may be, they’re going to have to manage this to a certain degree by themselves until law enforcement arrives.”

Jim is an expert on active shooter planning and response, and we’ve worked with him to conduct more than 50 active shooter training exercises for the Department of Homeland Security. In each exercise I’ve facilitated, there are three key immediate actions that never fail to come up—and I’ve learned they can greatly impact the damage a shooter can inflict in those critical first minutes:

  • Provide detailed information to 9-1-1. An immediate 9-1-1 call enables rapid dispatch, but the information you provide also helps determine the speed of law enforcement response when they arrive. Train key personnel to calmly provide: the shooter’s exact location (including building name and number) or direction last seen headed, the shooter’s description and clothing, the number and type of weapons, the facility’s exact location and most direct entrance, and the number of suspected victims, if known. Put a checklist by facility phones.
  • Rapidly notify everyone on site. Be specific and use terms people will immediately understand. Repeat each message three times. Don’t sugarcoat. “There is an armed intruder firing shots in the third floor corridor” is a lot more valuable than “We have an intruder in the building”—especially to the people in that corridor. Provide information people can act on to save their lives or others’.
  • Designate a law enforcement liaison. Train pre-designated personnel to meet arriving officers at the entrance, especially at large facilities that are difficult to navigate. Provide specific directions and facility maps, update officers on new information, and alert them of any armed security officers or potential hazards on site. Provide the incident commander with facility radios to maintain communications throughout the event.

The key to each of these actions is effective training and repetition. “It conditions us to react and do what we are capable of doing,” Jim said. “We get into situations where yeah, the anxiety and the fear factor are there, but we’re functioning. What we’re not doing is panicking.”

Attend an exercise, and you will no doubt hear Jim say, “Training is a conditioning tool.” It makes response automatic when seconds mean lives.