This past Friday I was caught up in an “active shooter” alert inside my ten-story office building. The alert turned out to be a false alarm, triggered in error during a building drill, but for about five minutes I, and everyone who received the alert, were thinking about the real possibility of being shot and killed inside our office.
It was a quiet Friday morning in my downtown Washington, D.C., office building. I had convened a regular weekly team meeting. Five members of my team were in a conference room with me, and another three team members on a conference call, discussing typical team meeting stuff. My cellphone was on the table in front of me, on silent, but face up so I could see any front screen messages.
As I was talking I caught a text message flash on my cellphone screen. Something about it caught my attention and I stopped talking to take a closer look. I had to read the text message twice:
Alert: An active shooter has been reported at the […location…] office. Run if you can, Hide if you must, Fight as a last resort; avoid […location…] if you are not already there.
I looked up from my phone and asked “did anyone else just receive an active shooter alert?” My team members looked at me blankly for a moment, looked at their cellphones, and looked back at me nodding their heads in agreement. I called out to my team members on the conference call “folks, we’ve just received an active shooter alert for our building. We’re going to disconnect this call and figure out what is going on. We’ll get back to you when this is all over.” They quickly acknowledged and I hung up, then thought about what to do next.
I remember feeling a bit confused. Although nothing with the alert indicated it was a test, I also hadn’t heard any gun shots. Even with a ten-story office building, I couldn’t help thinking we would have had some other indications of a gunman walking around shooting.
While the “Run if you can, Hide if you Must, Fight as a last resort” is a reasonable concept in theory, this was now the real thing. The floor we were on is a “modern” office layout; Our conference room has an entire wall of thick frosted glass between the conference room interior and rest of the floor. About one-third of the floor is “open office” with low partitions between work tables. The remaining space is divided up into one and two-person rooms; but literally every small room has a glass door or sidelight. It doesn’t take a tactics expert to know it’s difficult to hide behind a fucking glass wall.
My team and I quickly decided that we needed to vacate the glass-walled conference room we were in for someplace more hide-able. We walked out into the common area and looked for a smaller more discrete room. Being a Friday, most people who would normally be around were working from home so the floor was largely empty. I saw one woman working in the common area and approached her asking “did you just receive an active shooter alert for this building?” The woman looked up at me in surprise, immediately figured out I wasn’t joking, looked at her phone and said “No.” My other team members quickly told her we all had, then we walked as a group to an empty two person room (with a glass sidelight) and took shelter inside. One person said “turn off the room lights” which seemed a reasonable idea so we did.
The room was too small for us to all sit down so we just stood in the darkness waiting for what would happen next. I wondered if I should text my wife.
About one minute later I received another text alert on my cellphone:
ERROR – the prior message was sent by mistake. There is NO THREAT to the […location…] office.
This message was quickly followed by a second:
[…Firm…] employees who work near the […location…] office: ALL CLEAR. There is NO threat to the […location…] office. We understand police were onsite. They were informed of the false alarm and will be leaving shortly. It is safe to return to normal operations.
Reply with YES to confirm.
As I read these alerts, other people also received alerts on their cellphones. We left our glass-windowed hiding space and returned to the glass-walled conference room. I contacted our remote team members, got everyone back on the conference call, and resumed our meeting. Several minutes later a group of police officers came into the conference room and called out “everything OK?” We all called in the affirmative, and the police left.
Our meeting broke up about thirty minutes later. We disbanded, and resumed our normal Friday workday routines. But shock waves from the false alarm rippled through our building for the rest of the day.
I received a couple of emails from my firm leadership apologizing for the false alarm scare. The senior officer in our building announced that anyone who wanted to take the rest of the day off could do so, charging to admin time (company cost) instead of personal vacation time. I ride the commuter bus home, and the first bus wasn’t coming by for another couple of hours, so I stayed. Several colleagues did seem pretty shaken up. One person never received any alerts until the incident was over and loudly expressed his anger at the lack of communications, directed at one of our Vice-Presidents. Our Vice-president put sincere effort into apologizing and trying to calm the person.
Five years ago I was caught up in the Washington Navy Yard mass shooting. Three years ago I was caught up in an active shooter false alarm, again at the Washington Navy Yard. And now again, this time in the building I work in. This alert came just two days after a deranged 17-year old was able to get his hands on an AR-15 military-grade weapon and hundreds of rounds of ammo, and shot up his high school killing 17 people.
This is the world we now live in, and apparently cannot do anything about.
Washington Navy Yard; I was There – My story about being too close to a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, September 16, 2013
False Alarm, This Time – My story about experiencing another false alarm of a mass shooting near the Washington Navy Yard
The Death of Compassion : After I witness a relatively minor auto accident, I reflect on the complete lack of compassion expressed by bystanders.
Updated: May 5, 202. Converted to Gutenberg Blocks and added related stories links.