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Prepare for the Unthinkable

Unforeseen violence can happen anywhere, sadly. Do your best to prevent it and always be situationally aware.

Prepare for the Unthinkable
Virtually all veterinary hospitals are potential soft targets for active shooters.

Earlier this year, the United States saw multiple mass-casualty events linked to what police commonly call an “active shooter.” A quick Google search noted at least 71 such events since 2011.

Unprovoked acts of gun violence are sometimes random and sometimes retaliatory. Businesses, churches, schools, movie theaters, outdoor public events and even military installations have been targeted.

I bring these awful events to light for two reasons:

  • To underscore the fact that active-shooter events can happen anywhere.
  • To forewarn that veterinary facilities, all dedicated to extending animal life, are not immune.

A dozen mass shootings totaling 80 deaths occurred in 2018. In response to some of that year’s tragic events, I wrote about how to react in situations involving a violent intruder. (Read “Fear Factors” at bit.ly/39KLbvS.) It now seems appropriate again to discuss strategies for identifying and preventing active-shooter situations in the veterinary workplace.

Signs of Trouble

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide a safe workplace free from recognized hazards. The veterinary practice environment traditionally has focused on bites and scratches, slips and falls, strains and sprains, and employee ergonomic exposures. But what has been done to protect against scenarios such as an irrational client triggered by a billing dispute or negative medical outcome, or a disgruntled employee or spouse barging in out of retribution, or a deranged individual simply looking for a soft target?

Frequent motivations for violence include:

  • Politics (for example, the January 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol)
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Bullying, resentment, frustration or retaliation
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental illness

The key indicators that hospital management and employees should look for in clients, co-workers and others within their circle of life include:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Enhanced anger or argumentative behavior.
  • Blaming others for personal problems.
  • Repeated defiant behavior, particularly related to workplace policies and procedures.
  • Failure to take responsibility for actions.
  • Greater unexplained absenteeism.
  • Retaliation against perceived injustices.
  • Recent purchase or fascination with weapons.
  • Bragging about participating in violence against others.
  • Empathy for those who commit violence.

See Something, Say Something

Experts stress that identification and preventive actions are the keys to thwarting horrific violent events. Also important is situational awareness — paying attention to things that might represent an imminent or future threat. Unfortunately, virtually every active-shooter event was not a complete surprise to one or more people somehow associated with the perpetrator. The tragedy is that those people did not communicate the threat or act to possibly prevent the loss of life. The take-home lesson is if you see or hear something, say something!

Situational awareness takes time to gain a proper understanding that an active-shooter event can take place. It’s imperative always to stay alert for key indicators.

My advice to veterinary practices is to have an unobstructed view of your waiting room and outside your building. During the Boulder, Colorado, shooting in March 2021, the perpetrator killed the first victim in the parking lot before entering the supermarket. Unfortunately, many businesses cover their windows with shades, pictures or promotional ads, be it for 99-cent hot dogs at the corner convenience store or cute animal pictures at veterinary clinics. Either way, visibility is severely compromised. Hospital personnel should always have a clear view of people, parking lots and entrances. Cameras, alarms and controlled-entry access can play a critical role.

Virtually all veterinary hospitals are potential soft targets for active shooters. Visitors traditionally have unhindered access to not only the building but also the rest of the clinic via a hallway or unlocked exam room door.

Regardless of your building’s shape, size or location, you need to practice risk management by creating and following policies and procedures and training your team for the possibility of a violent intruder. Prevention is always the goal, and you must be prepared for the worst.

Awareness and training will allow everyone to react faster, make better decisions and significantly increase the odds of mitigating a tragic outcome. Your insurance company and agent can serve as valuable resources in assisting with the planning and discussing coverages that address such a critical workplace concern.

Protect & Defend columnist Dr. Ed Branam is the veterinary and animal services program manager at Safehold Special Risk Inc. A 1977 graduate of the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, he has worked in the insurance industry for the past 20 years. He is a former Sacramento, California, veterinarian and a former veterinary affairs manager with Hill’s Pet Nutrition.


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security published the free booklet “Active Shooter: How to Respond.” Find it at bit.ly/39NAKrH.