Carol Cambridge is an authority on workplace violence and personal safety. She is a keynote speaker and trainer on topics ranging from active shooter situations to workplace conflict, and runs empowering workshops that help people make good decisions in stressful situations. Carol is the founder and CEO of The Stay Safe Project.
How can meeting planners assess the threat level before planning an event?
In order to fully understand the risks and evaluate them properly, ask the right questions. If you are working for a corporation ask if there have been any threats made, is there any bad press about the CEO for example, or do they want a controversial speaker. Ask if there is a risk of protests or disgruntled clients.
Look at your exhibitors or vendors, have any of them been in the news over a controversial product? For example, a medical breakthrough that offends a particular group? Do your own research.
If you know from the beginning that your conference will host a high-profile person or will be controversial, take a security person with you on site visits before you choose your venue. A security expert can tell you if there are evacuation issues for your particularly group, for example retired people may have problems evacuating down stairs. Anytime you are in an uncontrolled environment—especially outdoor venues—it is harder to secure them.
Is there a way to manage attendees to make them safer?
The law says, “take reasonable steps” to provide a safe environment. If an attendee has an abusive ex spouse or stalker, discuss with your client what constitutes “reasonable.” Steps can range from posting a picture of the ex spouse at entrances to stop him/her from entering the conference, to providing a personal safety alarm with GPS and panic button for the attendee. You have to weigh the risks against the costs. If, for example, the stalker has moved to a state where you attendee now has to go to attend the conference, it is probably wise to tip off local law enforcement and the venue security.
If you plan on having events where alcohol is served it is your responsibility to talk to the bartenders about cutting off intoxicated guests. A lot of times they are just hired for the evening and have no idea if there is a policy in place. Talk to them yourself and give them permission to say, “no.”
How can a meeting planner evaluate existing hotel security, and should they hire their own?
I don’t rely on hotel security. I always ask hotel security about their background and, how do I put this? if they worked their way up from housekeeping to security then the security team is not up to par. That really happened once. It is your responsibility to ask. Law enforcement and risk management backgrounds are better, but if you are really concerned you can hire off-duty police or an executive protection team. Depending on the threat level you can hire armed or unarmed security. And don’t assume that the threat level won’t change in the time between booking the event and when attendees arrive: read the local news, see if there are protests or some other political event being held at the same time. Security is always a fluid situation and you may have to go back to the venue or the people who approve the budget and explain that you need additional security when circumstances change.
There are open carry laws in many states, how do you feel about your attendees being armed? Does it help or hurt?
I encourage planners to explain to attendees that there is adequate security already and guns are not allowed in the meeting. Put it in the rules at registration and have signs in the ballroom. If guests want to bring their weapons they should leave them in the hotel safe. If there is a protest at the venue, do you want armed vigilantes running around? If an attendee says they want to be prepared if there is an active shooter situation you need to ask them if they are prepared to hit an innocent bystander or five, because it is total chaos. This is why I run experiential workshops on active shooter situations, people don’t realize that it is utter chaos and having a gun will only make things worse. If you attendees have weapons drawn the risk of injuring and killing innocent people is high and police are unlikely to be able to differentiate between an active shooter and a “good guy with a gun.”
Meeting planners routinely talk to security and have back up communication so the entire meeting team can help out in an emergency. What else should meeting planners add to the mix to protect attendees?
There are things to do and things you should definitely not do!
To begin with, it is helpful to announce where the exits are in a room at the beginning of the presentation. This may be the new normal, just ike in movie theaters. You can do this in a matter of fact way—“In the event of an emergency your exits are here, here, or here.” You don’t have to say why. Having said that, a lot of times I ask meeting planners where the exits go and they have no idea, an exit door could lead to a bottleneck or a corridor that leads right out to where you hear shots. Planners should take the time to look before the event begins so they can direct people to the right exit, away fro the gunfire.
Two things you should never do. First, don’t tell people to muster in one place. We are used to doing this for fire drills, but a large group of people is a target for a shooter. You want your attendees to run and scatter. Second, never trigger the fire alarm. Think about it, if your meeting is in a hotel, triggering the fire alarm will bring people out of rooms where they should be sheltering in place and bring them to the lobby where they will be a target. If you are using an app for your conference let venue security have access to it so they can put out messages concerning building areas to avoid etc.