The Force Awakens – A Potential Soft Target?

“There has been an awakening.  Have you felt it?”  This line from the first trailer of the new Star Wars movie is chilling.  Many of my readers are aware that I am a HUGE Star Wars fan.  As you would expect, I am incredibly excited about the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens next week.

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Image courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd.

With the recent terror attacks and shootings, though, safety at the theater has certainly been on my mind.  We need to work together as a whole community – theater goers, theater owners/managers and staff, law enforcement, and municipalities.

When I first starting thinking about writing a post on this, I quickly realized that I needed some input from an expert in security.  I reached out to a colleague that not only has the qualifications, but is also a fellow blogger and consultant: Ralph Fisk.  You can find Ralph’s blog here: https://fiskconsultants.wordpress.com/.  He has some great insights on security and risk assessment matters – I strongly suggest you check out his blog, follow, participate, etc.  Ralph agreed to collaborate on a piece related to this global event.  He is also posting this same article on this blog.  Enjoy – and May the Force be With You!

– TR

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(This article, cross-posted and co-authored by Ralph Fisk and Tim Riecker, draws collectively on our experiences and expertise to provide guidance to municipalities, theaters, and movie goers on awareness, preparedness, and response concerns as we look toward this global event.)

The rapidly approaching release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens stands to be the largest premiere in theater history.  It has already broken a multitude of pre-sale records, with more records certainly to be broken on opening day and opening weekend, both domestically and internationally.  Even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan, you must certainly be at least aware of a new movie being released.  But what does this have to do with emergency management and homeland security?

On July 20, 2012 James Eagan Holmes killed 12 and injured 70 others when opening fire on patrons in an Aurora, CO theater.  This mass murder took place at the midnight premiere of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris involved a music venue, in which nearly 100 people were killed.  Gathering places like movie theaters are just one more item on the list of potential soft targets for people wishing to do harm, be they terrorists, disgruntled, or disturbed.

IMDB provides a listing of international release dates for The Force Awakens here.  We caution that this list isn’t entirely accurate.  For example, while December 18th is the official release date of The Force Awakens in the US, thousands will be seeing the movie at a select list of theaters participating in a 7pm special premiere time on the 17th.  While you should certainly be aware of the date and time of this premiere at your local theaters, it should be emphasized that theaters will be packed with fans for some time.

While there are no credible threats involving this premiere that we are aware of, municipalities, theaters, and movie goers all need to be aware of the potential for an attack and what each can do.  Surprisingly, despite high visibility active shooter and terrorist events of the past few years, most municipalities still do not have appropriate preparedness measures in order.  While there isn’t time to assemble a solid response plan prior to the premiere of The Force Awakens, there is still plenty of time for beneficial, albeit ad-hoc preparedness efforts.

Our thoughts are below…

With the release of the much anticipated next chapter of the Star Wars Saga, The Force Awakens; theaters and local first responders need to have a heightened level of awareness. There are a number of potential threat indicators associated with this release:

1)            Of course the current terrorism threat situation is first and foremost in our minds

2)            The history of an Active Shooter Attacks on movie theaters goes back to 1989 during the screening of Harlem Nights in Chicago, Sacramento, and Richmond California; on 20 July 2012 during the midnight release, in Aurora, Colorado, of the much anticipated film – Batman: The Dark Knight Rises; another Active Shooter Incident that involved another movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana on 23 July 2015 during the screening of Train Wreak.

3)            But also other considerations should be given to just the more than “normal” volume of theater goers, and which possible incidents could result from that.

Theaters are known to be soft targets and as such we need to be aware of the threat and how to address it.

We are going to cover the first two indicators listed above as they are not only the largest possible casualty producers, but also pose the greatest immediate impact.

Below are some suggestions and considerations for an ad hoc plan not just for the venues featuring these events; but also for those that maybe in attendance.

Introduction:

Most Active Shooter Incidents, an estimated 90%, are single actor attacks, meaning unless that person has been overt in their planning, little is known about the possibility of an Active Shooter Attack;

Unlike Terrorist Cells; which typically contain up to 4 – 6 members, not just for ease of control and planning, but also for the strict adherence to Operational Security, on the part of the Terrorists.

The difference between the two attacks may appear to be subtle to the uninitiated;

The main goal of an Active Shooter incident is to cause as much destruction as possible in a very short time span; Active Shooter incidents are different from other weapons related crimes in that they intend to commit mass murder.

Terrorist Attacks however have a very distant signature. They are commented for a number of political or ideological reasons; and may result in mass murder or hostage taking. Terrorist attacks may seem very methodical in nature of the execution.

Terrorism:

Terrorism is all around us, whether we chose to look for it or not. Terrorist Groups tend to fall into one of six different categories;

  • Nationalist/Separatist – Sometimes referred to as Freedom Fighters
  • Religious – and we are not just talking about Radical Islamic terrorists here
  • Political – which include; right and left-wing
  • Anarchist – Freedom without the burden of a Central Government
  • ECO/Animal Rights – Motivated by Environmental/Animal Political Policies
  • Single Issue Causes – involves the use of force and violence for the purpose of coercing a government and/or population to modify its behavior with respect to a specific area of concern. Typically, these types of organizations do not have an overall political agenda

Which any number of these groups with related or different causes are already operating in the heart of the Country. Terrorist Attacks could have one or more of these four main objectives;

  • Recognition of the groups’ cause or purpose
  • Coercion toward the populace and/or government to the groups’ ideology
  • Intimidation to cause fear or terror; to cause the populace to lose faith in their governments’ ability to protect them
  • Provocation: attacks are aimed to cause the ruling government to take repressive actions against the population; demonstrate the weakness of the government and the strength of the terror organization

It would be almost impossible to go into the ideology of every single group. Suffice it to say, that they all mean to get their points across, sometimes with protesting, sometimes with criminal destruction of property, and yes, sometimes they will introduce violence.

Violence could be in almost any form imaginable. The most used form of violence directed towards a population tends to lean toward Armed Attacks and/or Bombings (Including suicide bombings); because for the most part these are relatively inexpensive approaches, the logistics to effect these types of attacks are relatively easy to obtain and these tend to produce the most casualties and incite the most fear in the general population. Between 1998 and 2007 out of the estimated 28000 terrorist attacks around the world, almost 21000 involved one of these two types of tactics.

Other terror techniques also used could include; Assassination, Arson, Hijacking, Hostage Taking, Kidnapping, Sabotage, Seizure, Sniper Attacks/Mass Shootings, Threats or Hoaxes, Cyber Terrorism, Agricultural Terrorism, Civil Disturbances and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). WMD is the use of any weapon or device that is intended or has the capability to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release; dissemination; or impact of one of the following means; Toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors; diseases, biological organisms; radiation or radioactivity.

Combined attacks of different types have also been used in the recent past. The attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 included the use of Airplanes as Weapons of Mass Destruction; the Terrorists Hijacked the planes through the use of an armed attack, albeit the arms were box-cutters, and crashed the planes into buildings causing the planes themselves to be used as WMD’s

Terrorists seek to create public fear and anxiety in order to influence government policy. Through the randomness and unpredictability of their acts, terrorists attempt to undermine confidence in government’s ability to protect the public. Terrorists hope the resulting insecurity fuels public demands for government concessions in order to stop the terrorist acts.

Today, as has been evident with recent terror attacks and attempted attacks, terrorist target selection wants to affect the maximum number of innocent people, in order to generate the fear, they desire. As the government has mobilized to protect our infrastructure from attack, our less protected target; schools, universities, shopping malls, et al., become more attractive targets.

As other sites and venues are “hardened” for security, these measures cannot be implemented across all avenues of society. One, it would infringe on our basic constitutional rights, two, the potential cost associated with “hardening” every facility would surely bankrupt the organization or governmental body imposing such restrictions, and three, we would become a “jailed” society.

Planning for terror incidents doesn’t require you have access to CIA, FBI or other intelligence organizational files, it, for the most part, only requires Common Sense, Situational Awareness of your surroundings, and a Communications Plan.

Some things to take into consideration when you’re making your plans to be in these potential soft target environments:

  • Remain Alert
  • Develop an informed vigilance; meaning, know what possible terror threats could be in your area or the area you’re going to
  • Let someone, not going with you, know your plans; where you’re going; when you expect to return
  • Attempt to blend in with your surroundings, Don’t try to stand out
  • Know your surroundings; Know how to exit the area you will be in; what is the shortest way out; have an alternate plan should that not be a viable opinion should there be an issue
  • Communicate that information to your family and others with you
  • Identify a meeting place if you become separated

Report any suspicious activity. Again remember to use your common sense; examples of suspicious actions could include:

  • People loitering in the same general area without a recognizable legitimate reason; people who appear preoccupied with a specific building or area; electronic audio and video devices in unusual places
  • Just because someone seems to belong there, they might not be whom they seem especially if they are exhibiting any of the actions stated above
  • DO NOT TRY TO DEAL WITH ANY INDIVIDUAL YOURSELF contact the venue security or Law Enforcement Personnel
  • Look for things out-of-place; bags left unattended; packages; persons attempting to conceal items either on their person or receptacles

In threatening situations, take steps to reduce your exposure – leave the immediate area

If an incident does occur; follow the instructions of venue staff, emergency personnel and first responders.  If you are close to the incident walk away with your hands visible.  Walk, do not run as secondary injuries can occur to you or others; move toward the walls as people evacuating a building tend to gravitate in the center

Active Shooter:

Although mass killings have been around for some time, Active Shooter incidents have only relatively recently come into the main stream. I’m not going to mention them as most of you reading this post know the infamous locations of these horrific incidents.

 The National Tactical Officers Association defines an Active Shooter as:

  • One or more subjects who participate in a random or systematic shooting spree
  • Demonstrating their intent to continuously cause serious physical injury or death to others
  • Their overriding objective appears to be that of mass murder, rather than some other criminal conduct such as robbery, hostage taking, etc.
  • In most cases some type of firearm is used, however, the Active Shooter may use any weapon that may be available
  • A suspect is considered an active shooter if he or she is still actively shooting, has access to additional potential victims, and has a willingness to harm others until stopped by authorities or his/her own suicide

Most Active Shooter incidents are often over within 10 to 15 minutes, in a 2012 FBI Active Shooter report, 37% of Active Shooter incidents last under five minutes, before law enforcement arrived on the scene, individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter.

We will cover some very basic steps to plan for, react to and recover from an Active Shooter Incident. As with every planning recommendation I give; this is not all inclusive, I would highly recommend you attend an Active Shooter Training Seminar or ask for a visit from your local law enforcement organization that can give you a block of instruction on Active Shooter.

No matter where you find yourself, at work, in a restaurant, or any other venue where people congregate, you could very well be a target for an individual or individuals’ intent on causing great harm.

First rule in any Emergency Situation, Active Shooter included;

YOU ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE EQUATION! YOUR SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT!

I have talked numerous times about maintaining your situational awareness. When you arrive at any venue take a few seconds to find the exits; which one is closest to you; how will you evacuate the area should you have too? What is around you that could protect you? I personally like sitting at booth tables in restaurants; with my back against a wall or other solid object: having a complete view of the whole restaurant if possible and facing the door.

Remember there are three basic fundamentals to reacting to an Active Shooter Incident;

RUN – Leave everything behind; find that exit and GET OUT! Encourage others to come with you, but if they don’t want to leave, REMEMBER YOU ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE EQUATION!

HIDE – Put as many barriers/walls between you and the shooter as you can, turn off cell phones, radios, any device that could make a noise and give up your position! Lock or block the door; hide under a desk, remain quiet and claim!

FIGHT — AS A LAST RESORT, AND ONLY WHEN YOUR LIFE IS IN IMMINENT DANGER: Act as aggressively as possible against him/her; Throwing items and improvising weapons; Committing to your actions; Attempt to incapacitate the active shooter; (EXERCISE EXTREME PREJUDICE IN YOUR ACTIONS) That last part isn’t a fancy movie catch phrase; remember you are in a fight for your life!

Once police arrive on the scene here are a few do’s and don’ts;

DON’T:

  • Run up to the police; Their first priority will be to eliminate the threat(s) and secure the scene to allow EMS to come in and assess and treat casualties
  • Avoid making quick movements toward officers such as attempting to hold on to them for safety
  • Don’t stop to ask officers for help or direction when evacuating, just proceed in the direction from which officers are entering the premises.

DO:

  • Be VERY AWARE! That once Law Enforcement Personnel arrive on the scene you may very well be considered a suspect. That is normal response protocol
  • DO AS YOUR TOLD, it is BETTER YOU PLACE YOUR HANDS OVER TOP YOUR HEAD
  • YOU may be told to get on the ground…. Just do it…… Better to be treated like a criminal at first and then cleared, than being shot. You made it that far, go home at the end of the day

Active Shooter Preparedness is also becoming a very large part of Workplace Violence Planning and Training.

Although it is good to receive some rudimentary training on Active Shooter; each organization will need to tailor their response plans to fit into their building lay out.

Corporate Climates cannot afford to have a lackadaisical approach to workplace violence, emergency response or security, this is a leadership/management issue. Corporate Leadership must take ownership of safety, emergency response and workplace violence responsibilities for their organizations and require their First-tier leaders to stress the importance of these processes and procedures, one of the first things I learned about leadership was, led by example. You can direct more people into doing what you want if you first do it yourself! If you don’t, what makes you think that the employees will!

Active Shooter Awareness has to be incorporated with emergency response planning and work place violence planning; you are setting yourself and your company up for failure by not planning, training and conducting exercises.

This next point has greatly concerned me, I have seen some reports lately that companies are being sued for conducting Active Shooter Awareness Training and most, if not all claimants say they were traumatized by the training. Well I’ll simply put it this way, would you rather have some knowledge and a sense of what to expect should you ever have to act in an Active Shooter Situation; or would you rather be a victim. A 2012 FBI Active Shooter report indicated that over 50% of Active Shooter Incidents occurred at a business.

I’d also recommend that you receive some treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) after the incident, as you would have seen and experienced things that no person should every have too.

Recommendations both for Active Shooter and Terror Attacks for those that may not have a developed response plan

Municipalities;

  • Consider activating, even with minimum staffing, the local Emergency Operations Center
  • Consider “up-staffing” Law Enforcement, Fire and EMS Personnel, not only the first night but a number of consecutive nights as well
  • Consider a review of local mutual aid plans (Police, Fire, EMS)
  • Consider having a Public Safety Organizational meeting prior to release

Law Enforcement Organizations;

  • Consider high visibility patrols in theater areas, not only the first night, but a number of consecutive nights as well
  • Meet with theater owners/management to discuss awareness, protocols, and expectations
  • Consider reviewing your Active Shooter and Terrorism Response Plans
  • Act immediately on any reported perceived threats
  • Consider “Up-staffing” patrol personnel
  • Consider a review of local mutual aid plans
  • Check with local FBI Field office, Joint Terrorism Task Force, or if so supported, Fusion Center; prior to release night for any updates of possible threats

Fire/EMS

  • Consider having one medical and one fire unit “staged” close to the venue
  • Consider reviewing your Active Shooter and Terrorism Response Plans
  • Consider “up-staffing” the closet Engine/Ladder/EMS Companies
  • If possible, predesignate locations for Medical and Fire Staging Locations
  • Consider Review Local Mutual Aid Plans

Theater Company

  • Consider coordinating with local law enforcement for security
  • Brief Theater Staff that will be working those nights, on Emergency Response and Active Shooter Plans
  • Maintain a Passive Security Posture the entire night; Some Passive Security measure suggestions can be found above
  • Know the limitations of the theater rooms and know when they are close to capacity
  • Assign personnel with no other responsibility but to observe theater patrons; Only in an observe and report capacity
  • Consider review of local mutual aid plans
  • All theater staff must know where all the exits are and how to lead patrons to them; remind the staff the closest exit maybe behind them

Conclusion

As a sociality we have become increasingly dangerous, in that we have to worry about the seemingly random act of an Active Shooter; although most are not random at all, but go through as many as five phases before the shooter executes his/her actions. I fear that we will continue on this path of wanton violence and the better educated you are, not to these types of incidents, but any type, the better you will be to handle the situation.

As with any planning you do, whether you’re planning for a natural disaster or human initiated events/incidents, you need to take into account your own special considerations, also keep in mind that these planning and situational mindset ideas will not always be all inclusive. Your primary focus should be on personal safety, continued situational awareness and exercise your common sense.

The world has changed over the last few decades, more than anyone of us could have ever imagined. Thirty years ago, the only emergency-related thing we had to worry about at school was the surprise annual fire drill. The escalating violence in our world and attacks on soft targets like schools, churches, and hospitals has taught us that we are no longer safe in those places we once considered as morally protected sanctuaries. We must strive to provide a safe environment for all of us.

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5 thoughts on “The Force Awakens – A Potential Soft Target?

  1. Excellent article. I’m a Star Wars fan too. I’ve always thought that the ultimate soft target is a high school football game. Perhaps a theater allows more chance to catch other unaware in the dark.

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