After a gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, news reports say Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be reviewing physical security and access at all Defense Department installations around the world.
Presumably, he’ll be looking at whether those facilities have mass notification systems (MNS)—because it’s not clear whether the Navy yard had one. Even if it did, it may need improvement, because news reports indicate that only fire alarms were sounding and people inside the building were running out not knowing that a man with mental health problems, Aaron Alexis, 34, a civilian contractor and military veteran, was spraying the place with bullets.
For example, NBC News reported:
[A] worker there, Todd Brundidge, said he heard a fire alarm go off and later saw the gunman come around the corner.
"He turned our way and started firing, and we ran downstairs to get out of the building," Brundidge said. "No words. He raised the gun and started firing."
And USA Today reported:
Terrie Durham, an executive assistant at Naval Sea Systems Command, said a fire alarm sounded and she was trying to leave with a group of people when they encountered a shooter.
"We couldn't see his face, but we could see him with the rifle," Durham said. "He raised and aimed at us and fired. And he hit high on the wall."
In this case, sounding a fire alarm and having occupants leave that building may have been the right response … or would it have been better to have them shelter in place? A well-designed MNS, using the fire alarm system as its backbone, affords different options for different situations.
I’ve written before—in a story on the need for MNS, also known as an emergency communication system or ECS, in schools to protect students and staff from shooters there—that the military developed mass notification systems. The need for them became apparent after a 1996 terrorist bombing at a multi-story building in Saudi Arabia where American military personnel were housed. The only way to alert building occupants was the fire alarm, but lives were lost because evacuating in response to the fire alarm meant walking into the area where the bomb exploded.
The Department of Defense concluded an alert system was needed that could send a variety of messages in different kinds of emergencies, not just fires.
If the Navy yard didn’t have an MNS that could have helped in this situation, that would be sadly ironic.