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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

The importance of templates for active shooter messages


an emergency message for a gunman in the area

When we poll emergency managers and other public safety risk communicators about the threats that create the greatest anxiety for messaging, active shooters rank at the very top. They are fast moving, uncertain situations. Organizational leadership will have an opinion on the extent to which details about the event can be released, making it likely that a message will be vague about the hazard while increasing concerns among message receivers. This makes the task of developing templates before they are needed all the more important. Being caught without these vital messages when you need them will mean scrambling to cobble together something that is "good enough" to prevent injury and loss of life.


In this message, the organization issued an incomplete message to a small geographical area based upon the polygon drawn for message dissemination. There is little information about the who/where/when, but it does convey some details that are useful for decision making. Let's take a look.


There is no SOURCE mentioned in this message; message receivers will not know who has issued the alert or who will send a second alert when the area is safe.


There is also no TIME included in this message; we can assume that it is urgent because it is an emergency and that there will be a point in time where the event end because a second message will be issued. Those are details that aren't easily apparent.


The LOCATION of the threat is "in the area," making it difficult to identify if this message applies to northeast smith-ville-city or southwest jones-town-burg. Because message receivers do not see the polygon that is drawn by message senders, they will not know if they are IN "the area" or passing through "the area." While location is one of the most difficult things to include in a message, 360-character messages allow for more details and it's always a good idea to try to include that information.


The HAZARD is included in this message and is done in a way that lets the receiver know that it is an "emergency situation" but also that the emergency is due to a "gunman" in the area. We don't know if the "gunman" is actively doing something dangerous, or just asserting their 2nd amendment rights to openly carry a weapon while wandering a residential neighborhood, but the event was dire enough for the population to receive a WEA, so we'll assume the gunman is dangerous.


The message also includes the GUIDANCE to "please shelter in place," which could mean different things to different people. [note: shelter in place can mean different actions depending upon the threat - in this case, it likely means to go inside, lock doors, stay away from windows, don't answer door if someone knocks, etc.]


There are some things that are really useful in this message - the hazard information indicates the threat type and the level of danger; the guidance is short and directs people to take an action right away. But I do wonder if it was written at the time of the event and how much better it could have been if the writer had used a prepared template.


Readers of The Warn Room know that an incomplete message will result in delayed action. In the case of an active shooter message, lack of templates could result in delayed message dissemination as well.


For more recommended contents, be sure to download The Warning Lexicon - it's free and offers step-by-step instructions on how to write a better warning message.

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