Published November 07. 2013 3:00PM Updated November 08. 2013 6:39PM
The mere thought of being present during an "active shooting" incident at work — or anywhere else — is terrifying, but the state Judicial Branch is encouraging court employees to think about what they would do if somebody opened fire.
More than 160 employees attended Active Shooter Awareness & Preparedness Training this week at courthouses in New London and Norwich, where the primary message was that having a plan and a survival mindset could mean the difference between living and dying.
Court staff from several departments said they found the training informative and recited the three-pronged advice they were told to follow if they were to see a gunman or hear the "pop" of gunfire: "Get out, hide out or take out." The experts say the best option is to run away from the shooting, exiting the area altogether. If leaving is not possible, then finding a safe and secure hiding place is the next best option. The last resort is trying to incapacitate the shooter.
"I thought it was very valuable training for the court staff, both in their position as employees and potentially for a situation in a public arena outside of the workplace," said Emmet L. Cosgrove, administrative judge for the New London Judicial District.
"You hope you never use it," Cosgrove said, but having the framework to respond is invaluable. "When an emergency happens, it's natural for people to panic," he said. "To stop the panic, we have to have some sort of plan. That's why we have fire drills."
The training sessions, which are voluntary, were "sold out," and another will be added in December, said Cosgrove. Additionally, he said he has encouraged lead staff in every work area to talk through possible scenarios. Three hundred people work in the district's four courthouses and other sites. Judicial marshals, who are responsible for courthouse security, underwent the training several months ago.
Melanie Kerr, program manager for the Court Operations Division of the Judicial Branch, said 750 people statewide have taken the hour-long training program, which will have been offered in two locations in each of the state's 13 judicial districts by the end of this month. She said the course was developed under the guidance of Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers and chief court administrators Patrick L. Carroll III and Barbara M. Quinn, who recently retired.
"After the Sandy Hook incident, our leadership became more and more concerned about safety and security and put an active shooter program together," Kerr said. The trainers decided to go out to the work sites so that they can offer suggestions on how to get out of buildings safely or hide.
The branch decided to give employees information to think about and to practice with co-workers. "If you do it on a daily basis, when you're in a really stressful situation you are more likely to remember it," Kerr said.
The course includes a PowerPoint presentation, a discussion of active shooter incidents, including some that have taken place at courthouses, and screening of a video titled "Shots Fired: When Lightning Strikes."
"We tell people we are helping them develop a personal protection plan," Kerr said. "It's information they can use if they're at the mall or on their child's college campus or at a restaurant. We're identifying actions they could take, but the choice is absolutely theirs, and it's all contingent on the dynamics of the incident."
In addition to knowing the layout of the buildings they work in and multiple exit points, the trainers suggest employees park in a different spot and use different entrances once or twice a week to familiarize themselves with potential paths to safety. Also, the trainers told employees that a common practice known as "tailgating" should be eliminated.
"When you're coming into a building and you key in, it's common courtesy to hold the door open for a co-worker," Kerr said. "We're encouraging people not to do that. You don't know what their status is."
Kerr said another important piece of the training concerns how to interact with law enforcement officers who respond. Don't run at them. Don't try to hug them. Keep your hands up and your fingers spread so they can see you are unarmed.
"We also tell them that if they have information that might be helpful, give them the information but don't try to engage them in any other way," she said.