Active shooter response must co-exist with fire safety

Published: 4/25/2018
Author: Jim Pauley, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Fire Protection Association

Active shooter and hostile incidents are sadly becoming more frequent in our society. The natural response to these crises is to quickly identify possible solutions to avert future tragedies. While this is an understandable and critical course of action, we must not impulsively solve one safety issue at the expense of another.


Case in point, many are questioning the relevancy of fire drills, the use of smoke alarms and other fire safety practices that limit door locking capabilities. These provisions are dictated by codes and standards that have been key to dramatically reducing fire deaths in schools and other buildings, but may now be impeding safety from active shooters and other violent threats.

New provisions within NFPA 101, Life Safety Code® address these concerns by allowing safe door locking that prevents unwanted entry while ensuring that occupants can still readily evacuate in an emergency. However, doors need to have the ability to be unlocked from outside the classroom to permit entry by staff or first responders. “Add-on” devices that render a door inoperable aren’t permitted because they can be difficult to remove in an emergency, especially by children. They also could prevent entry by first responders and be used by intruders to prevent egress.


Clearly, these provisions leave valid, critical concerns on the table: How do we safeguard against incidents in which fire alarms are used to draw people outside and cause harm? How can we continue to ensure adequate means of egress while protecting people from assailants who enter a building intending to hurt people?


There is an urgency behind these pressing questions and concerns and we must act. NFPA is working in coordination with a cross-section of groups, organizations and individuals to tackle these and related questions, with the goal of expediently developing information and resources that will better protect people during active shooter and other hostile incidents.


Over the longer term, today’s safety threats must be addressed in many NFPA codes, including NFPA 1, Fire Code, NFPA 101, and NFPA 5000® Building Construction and Safety Code. In addition, NFPA moved quickly to develop a comprehensive new standard, NFPA 3000™ Standard for Preparedness and Response to Active Shooter and/or Hostile Events, which was recently issued by our Standards Council and will be available shortly. It was produced through a committee consisting of fire, police, EMS, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and others. This will be the first of its kind, providing key information to help communities prepare, respond and recover from such incidents.


Whatever provisions are established through more immediate efforts and the upcoming editions of our codes, the importance of continuing to ensure people can quickly escape a fire or other emergency cannot be minimized.


While it’s hard to measure success by things that don’t happen, the extremely low fire death rate in schools is, in fact, no happy accident. Those safety levels are a direct result of codes and standards that were developed in the wake of lessons learned from past fire tragedies, and have played an essential role in keeping students safe from fire and other emergencies. The same holds true for many other types of buildings where the fire death rate is extremely low.


In the collective efforts to help communities deal with targeted violence - whether it’s at a school, movie theater, nightclub, office building or virtually any other location—fire and life safety must not be traded off or compromised in that process. We need to find solutions that ensure adequate levels of safety in all types of emergency situations. We don’t have all the answers on how to do this yet, but are committed to working swiftly and diligently to bring together the right people to develop and equip communities with the tools they need to confront their new reality.

Jim Pauley is president of the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA is a global nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.

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