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Hardening Physical Targets

Schools, shopping malls, and commercial facilities should incorporate access control, physical security, and armed resistance.

October 01, 2013  |  by Donald Mihalek

Photo via Wikimedia.
Photo via Wikimedia.
"Denial has an interesting and insidious side effect. For all the peace-of-mind deniers think they get by saying it isn't so, the fall they take when victimized is far, far greater than that of those who accept the possibility. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print."

Gavin de Becker's prophetic statement from "The Gift of Fear" is proven every time a crazed gunman enters a school, mall or business and takes an innocent life.

Bad guys look for prey, whether it's in Kenya, Washington, D.C.Newtown, Conn.; or Columbine, Colo. In the aftermath, many ask why? What should concern us at a deeper level is what steps can be taken to deter, delay, and disrupt these purveyors of death.

With the exception of the military-related attacks at Fort Hood and the Washington Navy Yard, terrorists and criminals are more likely to assault a facility where resistance is minimal—a "soft" target.

Here's a case in point. Reports out of Newtown revealed that the mass murderer targeted the elementary school because in his sick, video-game psychosis, he could get more "points" killing children at the school.

Generally speaking, a building with fences, walls, access control, armed personnel, as well as overt and covert deterrents such as a nuclear plant is harder to attack than a shopping mall or school. It's a hard target.

That's not to say that a shopping mall can't incorporate some of the same tactics, tools, and technologies that full-security facilities utilize. They can. With some planning, this can be done without impeding their day-to-day operational flow.

Access control is the primary tactic facilities need to cement in their operational plans. Controlling access is a mindset as well as a physical reality. You have to have a mindset of exactly how and who you want to allow in and who you want to keep out—then build the barriers around that. If you set up walls but let everyone in, what's the use?

Commercial establishments face a daunting challenge to meet this goal, but it can be done. Malls and other commercial facilities can be constructed to impede access and provide areas to implement control measures. These measures could include access point configurations, placing barriers at entrance locations and establishing visibility of those points.

For existing buildings, create locations where you can impede an attack's flow with gates, obstacles, and doors that provide a deterrent to an attacker. They want easy access and the more they have to fight in, the longer it gives responding police time to get on scene and engage the threat. That should be your goal. These facilities need to create delay to allow the cavalry time to get on scene and engage the threat.

An alarm will help bring police more quickly to the scene. Most schools have to dial 9-1-1 if an active shooter invades their school. There hasn't been a fire in a school since the 1950s, yet fire alarms and extinguishers are in every school and other commercial buildings. Why not active shooter or panic alarms?

"Disrupting an attacker's flow using sound and light diversions needs to be implemented. It works for police. Sound and light can overload an attacker's mind, interrupting their OODA loop and slowing them down, giving the good guys time to engage," said Clint Bruce, a former Navy SEAL and Trident Response founder.

Unfortunately, there aren't many active shooter alarm systems. Existing alarm systems should be looked at to see if a panic alarm setting is available. It can be activated from several locations, causing loud sounds and possibly lights throughout the building. This will overload an attacker's mind and put them off balance.

Of course, the best way to deter or degrade a bad guy's attack is with a good guy's gun. Some facilities have off-duty police officers or armed security, but many do not. Those policy decisions need to be examined on a regular basis by a facility, and a real-world needs assessment should be done. If armed personnel are on scene, facilities need to think this through and ensure a communications plan is in place to prevent friendly fire.

We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lt. Dan Rodriguez of the Anne Arundel (Md.) Police Department's SWAT team said, "Our society has to get its head around answering the question, do they want speedy access or enhanced security?" 

If commercial facilities live in denial about our current threat environment rather than taking proactive measures to deter, diminish, and degrade a potential attacker, then they need to truthfully answer this question—if a lone wolf shows up, will we be prepared?

Donald Mihalek is a federal officer with more than 20 years military and law enforcement service.

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