Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Safer Rooms for Violence Prevention

There is a relatively simple yet valuable concept to improve not only the safety of campus staff but survivability for all building occupants in certain types of campus violence incidents. Though the concept has been around for decades, it is still not in wide usage at many American colleges and universities. Fortunately, architects, facilities, information technology and safety personnel can help to incorporate the concept in most current facilities and future campus construction projects. This concept is known as the safe or “safer” room.

A safe room is a location where staff can rapidly seek refuge from a potentially violent person, order building-wide protective actions such as an emergency lockdown and summon emergency assistance. While embassies and other high-risk settings are often equipped with safe rooms that are capable of withstanding rifle fire, moderate-sized explosions and other types of weapons attacks, I am not suggesting this level of protection for most institutions of higher learning on U.S. soil.

Evaluate the Need

The very real threat of terrorism and other types of well-planned and deadly attacks are possible for any college or university. However, campus officials should balance the costs of high levels of target hardening with the costs of addressing campus hazards that claim far more lives overall. Terrorist attacks and active-shooter incidents have not been the leading cause of death on our nation’s college campuses. Deaths from more common hazards can occur when adequate resources are not devoted to them because of a fear-based reaction to highly publicized but rare catastrophic events. However, reasonable modification of key workspaces such as main office areas, libraries, food service preparation areas and other locations where campus employees have commonly faced risk from a wide array of aggressors makes sense.

By designing or modifying these types of workspaces in a manner that enables employees to rapidly move to a space with a lockable door, close and secure it, make appropriate emergency announcements and call 911, campus employees can dramatically reduce the risk of serious injury and death not only for themselves but for students and staff throughout the campus as well. While more sophisticated attack methodologies can certainly be employed to defeat this type of safe room, ordinary locked doors can successfully stop many campus aggressors.

Recognize Fear-Based Sales Tactics

Though a number of vendors have claimed otherwise, there has been no rash of victims who have been killed in locked classrooms or office areas of higher education campuses or K–12 schools. While the attack at the Red Lake Reservation High School in Minnesota in 2005 involved an aggressor who breached a locked classroom door, instances cited by vendors have typically involved campus settings where doors did not have any locks, employees had not been issued keys or where employees had never been trained and drilled in proper lockdown concepts rather than actual breaches of locked interior doors. While some vendors using fear-based sales approaches claim that many students and school employees have died after successfully locking themselves in various types of rooms, the facts do not support these assertions.

Provide the Means for Lockdown

Rather than focusing primarily on what staff and students should do if an armed attacker breaches a locked interior door, my experience has been that we should focus more on how we can implement more effective lockdowns rapidly and reliably. Providing office staff with the means to protect themselves, rapidly announce a lockdown, and to call 911 from a reasonably secure space is one important step. We have found that simple design modifications can often dramatically improve the ability of staff to accomplish this without major monetary cost. In some instances, additional modifications are appropriate.

For example, if an office with large glass windows is the best available space for a safe room, limited use of ballistic film or security film may be required. More typically, providing an improved lock or an additional microphone for the emergency communications system may be needed. A thoughtful evaluation of the situation by facilities, administrative, local fire service and campus security or law enforcement personnel can often result in a reasonable and cost-effective solution.

As with any other safety approach, appropriate training and drills are needed for campus staff to be able to effectively utilize this concept. I have found that most office staff can effectively secure themselves, order a lockdown and initiate a 911 call in less than 10 seconds once a safe room has been established for them and they have been properly trained and drilled in this model.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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