Sounding Board: Preparing for the worst

The recent terror attack at a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, has domestic retailers thinking more about store safety. 

I got an interesting question via email the other day—What if terrorism hit a North American mall?Len Lewis

It was brought up by a retail security consultant following the devastating and cowardly attacks against civilians at a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by Islamic extremists. I cannot imagine anyone being unaffected by scenes of people running through store aisles amidst heavy gunfire or blood spattered floors.

It is always safe to say: “Well, that is half a world away and could not happen here.” By that logic, neither could 9/11, Newtown, Fort Hood, Columbine or Aurora.

We do not normally approach the subject in polite conversation or in business meetings. Even in a gathering of loss prevention professionals, the topic is protecting product, not people. Violence is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, hoping it will simply go away.

In the past several weeks, I have spoken to a number of retail loss prevention people, primarily about organized retail crime which, despite the best efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement, is still costing retailers an estimated $15 to $30 billion annually. That is nothing compared to the safety of shoppers and employees.

The active shooter scenario is the real dark side. Anyone in the security business will tell you that retail is one of the most vulnerable venues out there. Think about it. Retailers spend time coming up with ways to get people into the store—not keep them out.
Armed security guards are not really an option unless you want to scare your customers and increase the potential for gunfire, in which case you will not have to worry about terrorists since no one will be coming to your store anyway.

Let me say here that I have the greatest respect for law enforcement—local and otherwise. However, in violent situations they arrive after the fact and are not a preventive measure by any means.

Given the state of the world and the miscreants who inhabit it, we need to heighten the conversation on store safety. This is already happening in some circles. According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, two-thirds of retailers have an active shooter policy in place and many others are developing it.

I suspect it moved up a couple of notches on corporate agendas after the events in Kenya and the lone gunman incident at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The key is not to just create a policy and let it collect dust on the shelf, but to actively implement it.

This is not an easy subject to pursue. As I said earlier, most executives will shy away from it as something unlikely to happen or just too uncomfortable to broach. Both are bad choices.

The best way might be to follow just four steps recommended by the Department of Homeland Security:
•Be aware of your environment and any possible dangers;
•Take note of the two nearest exits in any facility you visit;
•If you are in an office, stay there and secure the door;
•Attempt to take the active shooter down as a last resort.

The last point is problematic. Confrontations with violent, unstable people are dangerous at any time, most of all for the untrained. Police, FBI and Homeland Security will also tell you that shooters do not enter an establishment intending to negotiate. Someone who comes in shooting is not going to stop and ask for the keys to the register.

At the very least, store employees need to be made aware of their options in these situations. Some businesses have installed “safe rooms.” Others are considering giving employees communication devices like key fobs that will summon help at the press of a button, or beefing up video surveillance inside and outside the store.

There are those who will read this column and say I am just exploiting an unlikely scenario to scare up publicity—tabloid journalism at its worst and a perversion of the First Amendment simply to get readership.

I assure you I am not yelling fire in a crowded theater. I want to prevent the fire from taking place and so should you all.

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