Soft Targets: Are You Vulnerable to Terrorist Attacks?

A Brief Analysis of U.S. Active Shooter Event FBI Data, Current Site Security Deficiencies, and Proactive Response Planning

Facility Security Photo: Hardening Soft Targets Against Terrorists and Active Shooters.

By William J. Smith & Stephanie Kent

It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there are reports of another shooting or mass casualty event, an act of terrorism perpetrated by lone or multiple actors. The media reports always highlight at least one devastating casualty to lament, and some horrific method of attack that will inspire copy cats and instill fear in our fellow citizens.

Over the past decade, news of these tragic events have become the norm. It’s time to pragmatically dismantle these incidents and analyze trends in attacks in order to identify and better protect ourselves and our facilities that are particularly vulnerable to acts of terrorism. Now more than ever, tragic events of the past must be understood as critical evidence to preclude and prevent these horrific acts. The lack of comprehensive statistics available for attacks by location category is mind-boggling. While research on the trending vulnerabilities and targets of motivated killers is scant and largely outdated, we came across an intriguing study conducted by the FBI in 2014¹ which sheds some light on the issue.

What did the FBI study?

The study involved the investigation of 160 active shooter incidents throughout the United States that resulted in annual totals of 1,043 casualties. For the purposes of the study, “active shooter” is defined as “an individual (or two individuals) actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” Not included in the study are shootings resulting from drug or gang violence, and not all mass shootings have been included in the sample set. However, the results provide remarkable clarity in terms of trending threats and necessary preventative measures.

What were the findings?

First, the findings point to a dramatic increase in the number of annual incidents. During the first seven years of the study, it was found that an average of 6.4 incidents occurred annually. During the last seven years, however, those incidents nearly tripled to an average of 16.4 per year. More importantly, the FBI used this data to categorize the locations in which these shootings occurred. It was found that an overwhelming 45.6% of the active shootings occurred in places of commerce – more specifically, 27.59% in businesses open to pedestrian traffic, 14.49% in businesses closed to pedestrian traffic, and 3.896% in shopping malls. Educational facilities were identified as the second-largest location grouping at 24.4%. At a 10% rate of occurrence were government buildings. Open spaces were at comparable risk to government buildings, with 9.4% of active shooting incidents. The final three categories at risk were residences (4.4%), houses of worship (3.8%) and health care facilities (2.5%). The results of this study strongly indicate a necessary shift in focus toward the protection of soft targets.

What are soft targets?

Soft targets are typically defined as civilian-centric locations that are not generally “fortified.” This would be any type of vulnerable, undefended and unprotected place where civilians might gather or meet. In terms of the FBI study referenced above, nearly all of the location groupings would be considered soft targets, with the presumable exception of government institutions (which often implement high building security measures). However, security would not be considered a primary mission in the other location categories, which would make them all soft targets for terrorism and violence of all kinds. More specific soft target examples might include shopping malls, entertainment venues, nightclubs, high-density gathering areas (like 5th Avenue or Times Square in New York City), hospitals, popular hotels, amusement parks, etc.

How can we harden soft targets?

First and foremost, recognize that any soft target is vulnerable to an act of terrorism. Businesses, educational facilities, and places of mass gathering are prime targets for terrorists. While Federal and State statutes and regulations require² employers of 11 or more have Safety, Security and Emergency Plans to address site-based incidents, most lack policies and procedures that address acts of terrorism or mass casualty events. As the FBI study cited reveals an upward trend in acts of terrorism; businesses, educational facilities, places of mass gathering, such as clubs, concert halls, arenas, and shopping malls should view these as a ‘foreseeable event ‘and take all necessary steps to protect lives and harden their facilities to preclude or prevent acts of terrorism at their facilities.

Secondly, conduct a comprehensive vulnerability assessment to identify weaknesses in your current facility emergency action plan (FEAP) as well as the facilities security and life safety product inventory; perimeter and internal surveillance cameras, access control, visitor management, emergency notification systems and other products and systems that complement the overall security and safety plan. Our licensed and credentialed investigative and security firm has been conducting these assessments for more than 30 years and found that most facilities are deficient in either or both categories.

Law enforcement investigations conducted in the aftermath of terrorist attacks reveal the actor(s) pre-visualized and developed a military style attack plan by surveilling a ‘soft target’ several times before the incident. Those attacks may have been prevented by utilizing appropriately modeled and placed surveillance cameras that recorded the actor(s) activities both inside and at the perimeter of the facility.

Finally, once your facility emergency action plan has been updated and qualified security products installed, training and practice drills will familiarize your staff and create proficiency in addressing a site based emergency. By promulgating and adopting policies and procedures that address acts of violence and terrorism; coupled by deployment and use of qualified security, safety and emergency management products, you can dramatically reduce your risk profile and provide for a safer and more secure facility.

1A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 U.S.; Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
2Regulation Standards: OSHA 29 CFR 1910:38 – NFPA 1600; Occupational Safety & Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor

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