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Active Shooter Drill

By: Jeffrey Cusack
| Last updated: March 18, 2021

What Does Active Shooter Drill Mean?

An active shooter drill is a training exercise that is designed to simulate a real-life scenario in which a workplace or other populated location is attacked by an active shooter.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines an active shooter as any individual who is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.

Active shooter drills are not intended to be workers’ sole source of training on how to deal with active shooters. Rather, the drill works as a “hands-on” training method that is combined with various supplemental information sessions which contextualize, explain, and elaborate on events experienced during the drill.

Safeopedia Explains Active Shooter Drill

Two Approaches to Active Shooter Drills

The National Association of School Psychologists describes the traditional active shooter drill as consisting primarily of a lockdown. In the context of an active shooting, a lockdown consists of:

  • Locking all doors and access points that lead into an occupied area
  • Moving all persons out of sight from any windows
  • Having all persons in the building remain quiet

The purpose of these steps is to avoid incentivizing an active shooter to attempt to gain access to, or fire upon, a given inhabited location.

An active shooter drill may also take a “multi-option” approach.

Like a traditional active shooter drill, an options approach includes lockdowns as an optional response to an active shooter scenario. However, they also include training in other steps that can be taken in certain situations. Options included in this type of scenario include evacuating to a safe location, and—as a last resort—fighting directly with the shooter.

Options approaches are typically considered for scenarios where there are significant escape opportunities and it is beneficial to equip individual workers to decide whether it is safer for them to attempt to escape or to shelter in place. In situations where any escape is likely to be high-risk, the use of a lockdown-only approach to active shooter training is more likely to be practiced.

Active Shooter Drills: An American Phenomenon

Active shooter drills are used mainly in the United States, where the proliferation of firearms via legal and illegal markets has lead to multiple mass casualty incidents in which an active shooter has been able to successfully murder large numbers of people.

According to JJ Keller & Associates, a safety compliance firm, 305 active shooter incidents occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2019. During that period, the highest number of casualties occurred in 2017, when 729 casualties were recorded across 30 shootings. The high number of casualties per-shooting is why such events are often characterized as “mass shootings.” During the 2000 – 2019 period, 81% of incidents took place at workplaces (including schools), and 42% took place specifically at businesses.

Workplace Standards

OSHA does not maintain any specific standards for workplace violence; however, OSHA’s enforcement guidelines for workplace violence state that enforcement agents may use the General Duty Clause to cite workplaces that fail to adequately protect workers from violence. These same directives directly acknowledge that active shooter training may form an effective part of a violence prevention program, and acknowledge the use of drills as an effective training method.

The general duty clause does not require every workplace to provide employees with active shooter training. For the clause to be enforceable, there needs to be a reasonably foreseeable risk that workplace violence could occur; for example, OSHA recognizes that individuals who work in the late-night retail industry—convenience stores, gas stations, and so on—are at an increased risk of violence. In these situations, the general duty clause may be invoked if an enforcement agent finds that the employer has not provided employees with sufficient training.

Critiques of Active Shooter Drills

While the Department of Homeland Security and other sources describe active shooter drills, their effectiveness is debated. Researchers at The Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank, have claimed that traditional approaches to dealing with active shooters may be ineffective due to the fact that the majority of active shooters are workers or students—familiar not only with the building they’re attacking, but with the active shooter training protocols that have been put in-place.

Researchers have also questioned whether active shooter drills might have a negative mental health effect. Most study of active shooter drills focuses on their use in schools and their effects on students, which means that there is limited information about their effect on workers as a whole. However, various research and reports indicate that both children and teachers may suffer adverse mental health effects from these drills.

Of particular concern to OHS researchers is the “unannounced” active shooter drill, which simulates a real-life active shooter event without warning. Researchers have noted that during the Parkland Shooting, which left 17 people dead (14 students, 3 staff), teachers were unsure as to whether the event was a drill. In order to avoid these situations, experts advise that—at minimum—any drill be conducted in a manner that focuses on maintaining a psychologically safe environment for participants.


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