Lessons Learned from a False Alarm

By County Manager Chris Coudriet

You may have heard about New Hanover County Government Center’s inadvertent emergency alert that happened on Aug. 1. The alert was treated as a real threat, employees evacuated the building, and law enforcement responded.

It turned out to be a false alarm and everyone was safe, but here is how the story played out.

An announcement sounded a little before 10 a.m., with my voice saying “This is an exercise, this is an exercise, this is an exercise. There is an active shooter in the building…” (I had previously recorded this message for an active shooter exercise we held at the Government Center building in October 2017).

I didn’t know of a planned exercise, so this was a surprise to me and our team. We headed out into the parking lot, did some investigative work to make sure that no other departments were aware of an exercise, and quickly determined this was either an accident or a real emergency.

As a leader of an organization, I think it’s important to have an emergency plan in place you can implement quickly in any type of situation – from an active threat to a hurricane.

I think we did that well in this situation. Because we didn’t know if this alert was real or not, we determined the best course of action was to treat it as a real threat. The safety and security of our employees and our citizens was the most important thing.

So, we began implementing our emergency response procedures for an active shooter. Law enforcement arrived, employees were moved to safer locations away from the building, an incident command post was set up with law enforcement and public information officers, and our team began assessing the possible threat and where the alert originated.

What we found was the alert was accidently triggered by an employee. The county had a system in place where employees could set off the alert from their phones using a specific code. It was part of the county’s active shooter policy, and something we have now revised to help ensure this never accidentally happens again.

Employees were able to go back into the building a little before 1 p.m. and we opened the building back up for business at 2 p.m.

Even though it may have caused some inconvenience and understandable fear, this incident provided valuable real-world experience for our law enforcement, and it allowed the county to review our policy and procedures for an active threat and make improvements. We also discovered that we had already improved in some areas from the October active threat drill, which was good to see.

I think it is really important to use instances like this to make our emergency procedures even better and our employees even more informed. Does your business or organization have emergency procedures for threats, natural disasters or fires? Do you train your employees or let them know what those procedures are?

The county’s Emergency Management Department plays a critical role in the county’s emergency response function. They help lead the effort to keep our employees and our citizens safe. They can also help your business develop emergency plans that will safeguard both life and property and ensure your business can continue in the event of any type of emergency.

Empowering our employees to understand what to do in an emergency has been an important part of our preparedness efforts. Our employees have been trained to run, hide or fight in the event of an active shooter – and that is what they did. Each of our departments also has a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) to be able to operate and conduct business after a disaster or a threat that compromises the facility where they work.

Having a COOP and a plan for how your employees should respond in an emergency are among the most important things a business can do to protect your livelihood and your employees in the event of a disaster.

Whether it’s having an off-site storage facility to house copies of important documents and data, ensuring you have back-up power for critical systems, or that you have a list of your employees’ contact information and their emergency contacts readily available wherever you are, every facet of the plan is important to think through, and the county can help you do that.

I encourage you to review information on the Emergency Management website. I hope you will take the time to prepare your own business and your employees, so that we can safeguard New Hanover County and the businesses that are so important to all of us.

The county’s accidental alert reminded me that you never know when an emergency can happen or how it will affect your employees or business. But if you are prepared and willing to continually evaluate your processes, you will improve and help to ensure that your employees and your customers remain safe. And isn’t that the ultimate goal?

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