Lessons in emergency alerting for active shooter incidents

by American City & County Contributor
Jun 27, 2018

By Thomas Crane

According to the FBI, an average of 16 active shooter incidents occurred per year from 2007 to 2013—a drastic increase from 6 incidents per year from 2000 to 2006. Research by Everbridge and EMS Solutions reveals active shooter incidents are a growing concern, yet approximately 60% of organizations don’t conduct active shooter drills, and 40% don’t have a communication plan.  

All types of organizations are using emergency notification systems to become better prepared for active shooter incidents. Alert senders must be prepared to quickly send active shooter alerts with the right information, to the right people, in the right ways.

Quickly send alerts

According to the FBI, 70% of active shooter incidents end in 5 minutes or less, so it is critical that initial alerts are sent very quickly.

To prepare for these types of incidents, it is important to have standard operating procedures (SOPs) and emergency alert templates that describe what will be communicated for various incidents, and the methods for disseminating information. Be sure to assign the right people to send alerts and assure they have no other responsibilities that will delay them from quickly sending alerts.

Right information

Generally, active shooter alerts should include the same types of information as other emergency alerts. According to Dennis Mileti, Ph.D., Director Emeritus of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, public alert and warning messages should include the following: 1) the source, 2) description of the threat (e.g., white, middle-aged man wearing red jacket) and its consequences, 3) location—so that people will know if they're in the area at risk or not, 4) guidance about what actions to take, how to take them, and how taking those actions reduce the consequences, and 5) message expiration time.

“Details matter,” explains Dr. Mileti. "Many emergency managers assume that alerts should be very short and to the point, but social science research documents that alert recipients are more likely to quickly take protective actions when messages provide  greater detail and are longer than 90 or 140 character messages—two common lengths of alert messages.”

Right people

During life-threatening incidents, people in areas affected by the threat are in greatest need of alert information. Many notification systems offer various subscription options for alerts about weather, crime, and more—however, in the case of an active shooter incident, anyone in the area should receive the alert, regardless of their subscription preferences.

Many local governments have access to send Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs), which can alert all (or most) smartphones in the area specified by the alerting authority. Additionally, governments can push alerts to televisions and public radios with the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Both WEA and EAS are capabilities of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the national alert and warning program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Alert senders should consider delivering different messages to people in different areas. People within closest proximity to the incident should receive the message to “run if safe or hide in a secure place…”, whereas, others should be warned to stay away from the area.

The right way

Creating pre-scripted messages that offer simple fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice fields allows alert senders to quickly and easily write and send alerts.

Alert senders should consider sending the alert via numerous delivery methods—text messages, phone calls, emails, social media posts, mobile app push notifications, and more. Additionally, organizations sending alerts should leverage local media outlets and partners to share their alert message.

It’s also important to remember that while WEAs can reach most people in a specified geographic area, you should consider the environment of the threat, and if the loud alert tone that accompanies WEAs could reveal hiding places of people who are in the area of the incident.


Sending alerts quickly is a great challenge during active shooter incidents. Organizations are better prepared to quickly send alerts if they have a communication plan, SOPs, pre-scripted message templates, assign the right people with appropriate authorities, and keep staff well-trained.

Thomas Crane is the senior solutions consultant at Everbridge, a communication technology provider.



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