Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 2, 2018.

Safe and Secure

In a world threatened by active shooters, NFPA takes another look at how to balance building fire and life safety with security


By all conceivable measures, Sandy Hook Elementary School was secure. The building, in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, had locked doors and a system for signing in. But on December 14, 2012, that sense of security was turned around. All it took was a bullet from a 20-year-old shooter’s gun to shatter a glass wall in the entryway of the school to breach security—a breach that would lead to the deaths of 26 people inside the school, 20 of them young children.

“We had security in place, we had plans in place,” said Natalie Hammond, who was a lead teacher at Sandy Hook at the time and who was shot multiple times in the incident. “But the shooter had other plans that day.”

Hammond, now a principal at another Connecticut school, was one of about 40 people who met at NFPA headquarters in early May for the Building Safety and Security Workshop. The aim of the workshop was to make headway in figuring out how to balance fire and life safety with other concerns such as security, green-energy policies, and comfort. The issue is one of the most challenging problems facing building and safety professionals today, not just in schools but also in other public and commercial buildings. Many well-intentioned solutions—such as using aftermarket locks to keep intruders out, or prohibiting students from exiting during a fire alarm for fear they become easier targets for attackers—actually make occupants less safe, most fire safety officials agree.

The workshop participants, whose backgrounds ranged from teachers to architects to law enforcement personnel, spent two days discussing how available technologies and building systems can be used safely to enhance security in different occupancies, and the complications of preparing occupants for active shooter and other hostile events. The result of the discussion—a list of recommendations on how to move forward with optimizing building safety and security—is a report available online. The website also includes the report from a 2014 NFPA workshop that focused exclusively on educational occupancies.

The new report offers some relatively obvious suggestions—such as preventing unsafe, aftermarket door-locking devices and following NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®—while also laying the groundwork for more innovative ideas. Three of the recommendations, for instance, involve occupant and responder behavior and are featured below.


Less than two weeks before the workshop, NFPA 3000™ (PS), Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, was released to the public. The provisional standard provides a roadmap for first responders, medical professionals, and others as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from active shooter and other hostile events, such as what happened at Sandy Hook. NFPA Journal covered the release of NFPA 3000 in “Writing History” in the May/June issue.

At the workshop, participants agreed that raising awareness of this document and getting buy-in from communities would be key components of enhancing first responder preparation for, and response to, such events. While NFPA 3000 isn’t a code or standard for the built environment, it includes recommendations for equipping buildings with tools, such as bleeding control kits, that can save lives in the event of an attack. “It’s the people right there on scene [who need to] get involved, call 911, provide direct pressure, and then, if needed, put on a tourniquet or hemostatic gauze … We have to get the bystanders more involved in doing something that will save a life,” Julie Downey, a fire chief in Florida and NFPA 3000 technical committee member, said in an interview with NFPA Journal in March. In her town of Davie, Florida, Downey spearheaded efforts to place bleeding control kits anywhere an automated external defibrillator (AED) is required.


Since 2015, the federal “Stop the Bleed” campaign has taught bleeding control; the program is one of several external programs referenced in NFPA 3000. Another is called “Run, Hide, Fight,” a guide for how civilians should react in dangerous situations. First developed by the City of Houston in 2012, “Run, Hide, Fight” has since been embraced by the federal government. But not everyone is on board.

Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and professor at New York University, wrote in The New York Times in 2015 that “‘Run, Hide, Fight’ is not how our brains work.” Essentially, LeDoux said, the program doesn’t account for what happens to most people in these situations—they freeze. “Underlying the idea of ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ is the presumption that volitional choices are readily available in situations of danger,” he said. “But the fact is, when you are in danger, whether it is a bicyclist speeding at you or a shooter locked and loaded, you may well find yourself frozen, unable to act and think clearly.”

LeDoux’s point was not lost on the workshop attendees, and the need to further examine “Run, Hide, Fight” to see if it is in fact the right program to be promoting in documents like NFPA 3000 was brought up. Participants specifically recommended that NFPA lead research efforts to break the program down term-by-term and study which response—run, hide, or fight—is most effective. The Fire Protection Research Foundation once conducted similar research on NFPA’s successful “Stop, Drop, and Roll” campaign. The ultimate goal, said Chad Beebe, a hospital facility manager and an NFPA 3000 technical committee member who attended the workshop, would be to come up with a program that accounts for a person’s evolutionary freezing response, and is also something that “a six-year-old can understand.”


While the workshop didn’t focus on one kind of occupancy or hostile event, some of the discussion organically gravitated toward shootings in schools. While some politicians, including President Donald Trump, have argued in favor of arming teachers and teaching them how to use guns, participants of the NFPA workshop recommended a different approach.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Sean Dinse of the Los Angeles Police Department developed a program to teach teachers how to respond in violent scenarios. As he began visiting schools to share the information, he discovered that most teachers were woefully unprepared. “They’ve told me their reactions [to violent incidents] would be based on what they’ve seen in TV shows,” Dinse said. That’s why he and other workshop participants recommended developing a standardized program for such education, which could include requiring first aid classes for students studying to become teachers. “They need the basics,” Dinse said.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: iStockPhoto