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Under Fire

2013-04-01, Feature, by Danielle Taylor

It’s a sunny spring day at one of your agency’s ballparks, and two first-year baseball teams are playing one of their last games of the season. Some of the players’ siblings are swinging, sliding, and climbing on a nearby playground under the watchful eyes of their parents, who are sitting in the stands and cheering for their young sluggers.

Most of the game’s pitches result in strikes, but suddenly one of the weaker players hits a strong line drive. As the outfielders scramble around, trying to remember what to do, the bleachers erupt in cheers and yelled directions from the parents on both teams. The hitter looks a little confused at first, but he drops the bat and takes off running, skirting the bases a little but solidly making it safe to third.

As the cheers slowly wear off, screams from the playground start to turn the parents’ heads. There’s a little girl lying facedown in a growing pool of blood near the monkey bars, and the other kids are shrieking and running for their parents in the stands. At first, it looks like she must have taken a catastrophic fall, but then there’s a loud popping sound, and a little boy by the tetherball pole pitches forward, a dark stain spreading across the back of his tiny T-shirt. A mother running for her child gets hit as well, grabbing her shoulder and dropping to her knees as parents tumble out of the stands, racing toward their children. Unnoticed amidst the chaos, a man by the basketball court takes aim again and fires another round into the crowd.

Would you know what to do under these circumstances? Would your staff?

As we’ve all seen in the news recently, large-scale attacks are a very real threat in today’s world, and public places filled with people are where violent individuals can inflict the most damage. This month’s bombings at the Boston Marathon injured almost 200 people, three of whom lost their lives.

When it comes to the possibility of violent threats, parks and recreation agencies need to prepare for incidents on a broad scope, ranging from large terrorist attacks to smaller robberies or workplace altercations that could still turn deadly. Although it’s not always possible to predict a violent incident, agencies can take steps to minimize risks, deter potential threats, and respond quickly and effectively to dangerous situations.

Establishing Contingency Plans
As grants and risk manager for North Carolina’s City of Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department (RPRD), Kathy Capps spends her days working to minimize preventable risks on playgrounds, in sports facilities, in the agency’s vehicle fleet, and elsewhere. After all, the practice of play involves a certain possibility of injury, and although participants and their parents acknowledge the possibility of getting hurt while playing soccer or climbing on a jungle gym, Capps works diligently to ensure that each person’s trip to one of Raleigh’s parks ends as enjoyably as it began.

But patrons of the city’s park facilities and participants in its recreation programs don’t always consciously acknowledge the risks of an unstable and violent person coming in and wreaking havoc. For Capps, this is the scariest and most difficult risk to minimize.

“What really solidified for our staff the need to prepare for these kinds of emergencies were the attacks in Norway,” says Capps, recalling the 2011 incidents in which a lone gunman claimed a total of 77 lives. “[The shooter] attacked at a camp, and so many of our staff run summer camps with limited cover. They got to thinking, ‘I have all these kids in my care every single day….What resources do I have?’”

The department had been thinking about developing a preparation plan for what they call “human threats”—shootings, hostage situations, kidnappings, robberies, explosions, etc.—for several years and had already begun compiling some procedural standards, but the Norway incidents kicked their planning into overdrive. To start, Capps searched online for existing preparedness plans and found a wealth of information.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has prepared a number of resources for preventing and responding appropriately to both specific and general threats, including a number of short booklets and single-page posters that provide a quick reference for emergency situations or basic training purposes. These can be found at

For her agency’s emergency-planning development, Capps also reached out to a number of local universities, hospitals, and school districts for ideas on what to include, knowing that most of these facilities would already have well-developed plans in place. She also contacted the Raleigh police department, and a connection with the department’s SWAT team training officer was the catalyst for developing her procedures and training plans. In terms of creating practical, effective plans to prepare staff, “The police department partnership has been our most important partnership at this point,” Capps says.

After consulting countless experts and resources, RPRD finally completed its full Emergency Action Plan Manual (EAP) in 2012, a 182-page document that provides extensive protocols regarding many of the different dangerous scenarios possible. It includes guidance on items such as how to evacuate people with special needs, what to say if questioned by the media, and considerations for working with minors.

However, Capps notes realistically, “Your general part-time staffer is never going to read through all that.” So in addition to the full manual, Capps and the EAP Review Committee developed a flipbook highlighting the key points. “It has all of the different types of emergencies on the cover,” she says. “You flip to the specific emergency, and there are the top four or five things you need to think about in that situation. We placed one at every front desk, in every vehicle, in high-activity areas such as gyms and fitness rooms—they are literally at staff’s fingertips and provide the most critical information.”

Training Your Staff
Once your agency has established an Emergency Action Plan, you need to train your staff in order to make it effective. Depending on your department’s number and types of staff, the facilities you oversee, your budget, and other factors, training can range from watching a quick video highlighting key action points to running a multi-day training course that includes scenario role-playing, triage procedures, and incident-specific response planning.
The City of Houston developed a six-minute YouTube video thanks to a DHS grant titled “RUN HIDE FIGHT: Surviving an Active Shooter,” available at In general, in the case of a situation like an active shooter, it’s best to run if you can, hide if you can’t, and fight if all else fails. The video shows office employees responding to a man with a gun showing up suddenly at their building, and it offers a number of less-obvious tips, such as turning off the ringer and vibrate functions on your cell phone in order to avoid drawing attention to yourself.

While the video offers excellent advice for most situations, you may need to adjust its instructions for your purposes, especially in instances in which a staff member is responsible for people in his or her care. “Our first step is to lock down,” Capps says. “Stay out of sight, close the blinds, take cover behind heavy furniture, and secure yourselves in a space if that is an option. Then call 911, and remain in lockdown procedures until law enforcement says to get out. Evacuating and fighting back are secondary options. We also have outdoor procedures, conceal and cover, if there is not a facility where you can hide.”

RPRD has about 430 full-time staff and anywhere from 2,500 to 2,900 part-time staff, depending on the season, and the department is currently in the process of training all of them. The training sergeant for Raleigh’s SWAT team conducts a three-hour training session that will ultimately equip all full-time staff and key part-time staff, such as camp directors. The rest of the part-time staffers take a one-hour online training course based on a similar course developed by DHS.

It’s difficult to train for every possible situation, but fortunately, says Capps, if you train for an active-shooter situation, you’re better equipped for most of the other incidents that might occur.

Constant Preparedness
With your plans in place and your staff trained, you may think your job is done, but because a threat can happen without notice, it’s critical to maintain your readiness, both in terms of training and resources. Encourage your staff to familiarize themselves with their facilities and think through the best ways to respond to emergencies in their specific locations. Hold regular refresher trainings to keep skills sharp. Most importantly, do everything you can to prevent incidents from occurring in the first place. Advise your staff to know what’s going on in their facilities and get to know their regulars. For example, if a kid in one of their programs is in the middle of a custody battle at home, a staffer should familiarize him- or herself with the situation and anticipate and prepare for the possibility of an incident happening at their location.

Also, after incidents both within and outside your agency, it’s a good idea to hold debriefing meetings to discuss the positives and negatives of how people responded. If necessary, update your EAP.

Capps recalls a recent incident in Raleigh in which the police instituted a lockdown covering five RPRD facilities while they searched for an active shooter who had killed his wife at a nearby shopping center. “The lockdown started at about 10 a.m. and went through until 3 p.m., and at one facility, there was somebody who was diabetic and needed to have food—her blood sugar was dropping,” Capps says. “Also, some of our part-time staff didn’t understand total lockdown procedures. It ended up being a nonevent, but it was a great learning experience to see what the challenges were to not only implementing a plan but also people’s impressions of what’s involved. It gave us a lot of information to help better prepare staff—what do we need to have on hand so being stuck in a building doesn’t end up turning into emergency?”

Overall, you may not be able to prepare for every possible incident that could crop up, but you’re not helpless, either. Establish your plans, train your staff, and do your best to prevent dangerous situations.

Says Capps, “It’s not appropriate to stick your head in the sand and say, ‘It will never happen here…’ It may be a low threat, but you still need to have a plan in place.”

Gun-Free Zones: Weighing the Pros and Cons
On its face, declaring your parks “gun-free zones” sounds like an excellent way to avoid violence. If there are no guns, then there can be no shootings. However, as advocates of concealed-carry laws will attest, if you make it against the law to have guns in parks, the only people in your parks with guns will be lawbreakers, leaving law-abiding citizens unable to defend themselves in the event of an attack.

Concealed-carry laws allow certain individuals who pass a background check and usually a training course, with specifics depending on the state, to carry a handgun or other weapon in public in a concealed manner. Currently, 49 states have provisions in place to allow concealed carrying to varying degrees—only Illinois and the District of Columbia prohibit the practice in its entirety. The goal is to arm responsible individuals who, with proper training, can help neutralize threatening situations in the critical moments before law enforcement can arrive on scene. In the event that a violent individual presents a threat in one of your parks, it’s possible that a concealed-carry permit holder could stop an incident before it occurs or gets too far out of hand.

Supporters of gun-free zones argue that the background-check process isn’t effective at screening out potentially dangerous individuals, sometimes giving mentally unstable or just violent people the legal right to bring guns into public places where they could cause harm.

In 2010, federal law backed up the laws of individual states in respect to guns in national parks—in essence, if a state’s law allows guns in public spaces, the federal law mandates that those provisions apply to national parks in that state as well. However, many state, county, and city parks across the country have instituted a ban on all guns in their parks, which has resulted in a number of legal battles over a permitted citizen’s right to carry their firearms in public parks if allowed by state law. Others have imposed certain restrictions but not blanket prohibitions.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed a bill banning guns at city playgrounds and recreation centers, citing the 50-plus shootings in these areas since 2010. However, the ban may be short-lived, as an existing state law makes it illegal for any county, municipality, or township in Pennsylvania to regulate an individual’s possession of firearms. Newfound awareness of the state law has caused a number of other Pennsylvania municipalities to re-examine or repeal firearm bans in parks. In recent years, Quakertown, Bucks County, Chestnuthill Township in Monroe County, and Lower Saucon Township in Northampton County have all revised their current municipal statutes regarding guns in parks to comply with the state law.

Also earlier this month in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, county commissioners rejected an amendment to a proposed county ordinance that would have relaxed some current restrictions on concealed handguns in Mecklenburg parks. In 2011, state legislators passed a law allowing concealed gun permit holders to carry handguns anywhere in parks; however, it included provisions that allowed local and county governments to restrict weapons in some recreational areas. The Mecklenburg amendment, as written, would bar permit holders from carrying concealed weapons only on playgrounds and on athletic fields, in gyms, and at swimming pools, but only if they are contestants at one of those locations. The county commission will revisit the issue on May 7.

It’s noteworthy that every mass shooting in the U.S. since 1977, with the exception of the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people and severely injured Rep. Gabby Giffords, has happened in a gun-free zone, according to John Lott, Jr., former chief economist for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. However, it’s unclear whether shooters target such areas as easy prey or are simply more likely to be stopped in unrestricted areas by those who carry concealed weapons. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are currently more than 8 million concealed-carry permit holders in the United States.

Danielle Taylor is Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation.

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