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Two mass shootings focus spotlight on safety in businesses

Schools repeatedly tightened their security and training after massacres at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, while people who oversee workplaces have remained in denial about violence, making them easy targets, say law enforcement officials.

That may change after two mass shootings in less than a week claimed 17 lives in a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado and at a holiday party in California.

“Colleges and universities, as well as public education, are probably well ahead of the corporate community,” said Ronald J. Christopher, who was director of Public Safety at Medaille College for 12 years. “Many companies are lax on their security protocols. Unfortunately we see an air of denial: ‘It’s not going to happen in our place.’ I think people are starting to realize that it can happen anywhere.”

Part of the problem is the total randomness of targets, from shopping malls to churches, from military bases to movie theaters, and of motives, from minor personal grudges or mental illness to extreme political agendas.

And while some local businesses say they have become more security conscious, the attacks Nov. 27 in Colorado and Wednesday in California have refocused the importance of making all workplaces secure and training civilians on how to react when they are confronted by an active shooter.

“I don’t take great pleasure in teaching people some of the self-defense techniques, other than knowing I am sharing something with them that they have not known before – how to grab a rifle, for example,” said Wayne Wolf, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who teaches classes in workplace violence, some through the Erie Community College Workforce Development program.

Some training of civilians has been offered for years.

In 2011, Medaille College hosted a seminar that drew about 100 businesspeople to hear George Gast, chief of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Police, urge them to seriously respond to any report of a threat from an employee.

“How many times have you heard after a workplace violence situation, somebody will say, ‘Well, he said he was going to do this, but I didn’t think he was serious?’ ” said Gast, a veteran of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Wolf said that in 70 percent of active-shooter cases, later investigation shows that the attacker made comments about his plans to someone, possibly a co-worker. Wolf said such “red flag” statements could include “talking about suicide, talking about weapons, talking about getting even with somebody.”

“I don’t think people want to get involved,” said Wolf, because they fear later awkwardness at work.

Christopher said some workers, supervisors or managers consider even blatant threats “more of a human resources issue, or they say, ‘That’s just who he is,’ or ‘That’s just the way he talks.’ ”

But law enforcement officials know better, Christopher said. If police were to get a tip about someone whose comments or behavior were a concern, he said, “In this day and age, with society the way it is now, in this atmosphere, I do not believe any law enforcement agency or official would ignore any type of a threat.”

In addition to the importance of recognizing and taking threats seriously, experts have been raising awareness of the new tactics needed to oppose active shooters, whose only goal is to kill as many people as possible before they are stopped.

A video instructing civilians that they should make a plan to “Run, hide and fight,” funded by the Department of Homeland Security and made by an agency in Houston, was shared frequently on social media after the Oct. 1 massacre at Umpqua Community College, and made the rounds again this week.

In a “60 Minutes” Anderson Cooper story that aired Nov. 22, Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier talked about the new advice police are giving civilians, which is far different from older recommendation that people call 911 and wait for police to arrive and handle the threat.

“Your options are run, hide or fight,” Lanier told Cooper. Experts recommend those steps in that order: run to safety if you can, hide to avoid attracting attention if you must, then be prepared to band together to attack the gunman if death is imminent, she said. “If you’re in a position to try and take the gunman down, to take the gunman out, it’s the best option for saving lives before police can get there.”

Despite the concerns of security experts that not enough is being done in non-school settings, representatives of several large local businesses, while unwilling to share details of their security measures, emphasized their commitment to safety in their workplaces.

“From an overarching standpoint, associate safety here at Rich’s is the No. 1 priority, no doubt about it, per Bob Rich,” said Dwight Gram, vice president of corporate communications for Rich Products. The company has 10,000 associates, their term for employees, worldwide, and about 1,300 employees in Western New York, 700 of whom work on Niagara Street in Buffalo.

“We have had security measures in place here for a long time,” said Gram. “It’s not as if we’ve beefed up something specifically in the last six months, it’s an ongoing focus on how do we get better.”

As part of the major renovation of the Rich Products headquarters in the last few years, Gram said security was upgraded at all entrances and exits. The company also has doubled the number of security cameras inside and outside the buildings, and has instituted tighter security measures that he would not disclose because “that would be like giving away your game plan.”

“There was a time, a long time ago here at Rich’s, where anybody from the public could walk in here and eat lunch and go to our cafe and enjoy that,” Gram said. “But obviously we don’t allow that anymore.”

“The safety and security of our employees is a top priority for us, and is reflected in the policies and protocols that we already have in place,” said Mary Ann Brown, a regional General Motors communications manager. The company has 4,000 employees in New York State, in plants in Rochester, Tonawanda and Buffalo. “We have very strong cooperative relationships in place with the Tonawanda and Buffalo emergency services – police, fire and EMS,” she said.

The tightened security “has been going on for quite some time,” said Brown, adding, “It’s sad that we even have to be talking about it.”