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How to Handle an Emergency

How to Handle an Emergency

After the LA Fitness shootings in Pennsylvania this past summer, some club operators began to think about what their staffs would do in a similar emergency. It’s a situation that likely won’t ever occur in your facility, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for it or another emergency situation.

Before I focus specifically on what to do if a gunman comes into your facility, I’d like to say that your best defense for any emergency situation is to plan ahead, practice for emergencies and be familiar with the emergency workers in your area.

Fitness facility owners and operators should invite their fire department, police department and emergency management services department into their facility to become more familiar with your layout and operations. Personnel from these departments can offer tips about how to deal with emergency situations and help you develop a plan. Because each of these groups must practice handling emergency situations during the year, consider offering your facility as a practice location.

Regardless of the emergency situation (gunman, fire, flood, earthquake, tornado, drowning, heart attack, etc.), you should have a crisis plan in place, including an evacuation plan, so employees understand what they should do when any event occurs. And you should practice that plan on a regular basis with your employees.

Your evacuation plan should include designated primary and secondary gathering sites for employees and members outside the club. This will enable you to get a head count and let police or fire personnel know if someone is missing.

Designate one person to be in charge during an emergency situation with one backup person. The person in charge should be the one who communicates with emergency personnel on the scene. Because of the pressure this person will be under, make sure to designate someone who handles pressure well.

Assign duties to your staff for the safety/crisis plan. Make sure you have backup people assigned for each duty in case someone is missing.

Have on hand current blueprints or layouts of all your clubs. These blueprints need to be detailed and contain locations for all utilities, control panels, alarm system locations (and how they work) and all entrances and exits (including roof hatches). In addition, the blueprints should detail how all entrances are secured (locks, padlocks, etc.).

So after figuring out the basics, what should you do in the event that a gunman enters your facility?

First, call 9-1-1 as soon as possible—and don’t hang up before the dispatcher does. You should provide the following information to the 9-1-1 dispatcher or on-scene law enforcement personnel:

  • Location of the active shooter. For dispatchers, this means providing the street address, business name, shooter’s location in the building and place in the building from which you are calling.
  • Number of shooters, if more than one.
  • Physical description of shooter(s).
  • Number and type of weapons held by the shooter. (Type can just be handgun or rifle.)
  • Number of potential victims.

Dispatchers will always verify your phone number in case they need to call you back. They also will verify the address as they are checking their computer information. Although this seems to take a lot of time, the average call with questions is less than 25 seconds. The dispatcher may even spell the street name back to you to ensure he or she heard you correctly.

After calling 9-1-1 (if it’s possible to do this first), you need to quickly determine the most reasonable way to protect your own life. Customers and clients are likely to follow the lead of employees and managers during an active shooter situation. You typically have three options:

1. Evacuate the building using the preplanned escape route. Leave your belongings behind. Keep your hands visible (which means empty) in case the police are already outside. You don’t want them to think you have a weapon in your hands since they won’t know who the shooter is.

2. Hide out. If it’s not safe to leave the building, find a place to hide away from the active shooter’s view. Block the entry to your hiding place and lock the doors—this means you need to know your surroundings.

3. Take Action. As a last resort—and only when your life is in imminent danger—attempt to incapacitate the active shooter. Act with physical aggression and throw items at the shooter.

Once law enforcement arrives on the scene, you need to remember that they have practiced how to handle situations like these and they are setting up to neutralize the shooter quickly, so allow them to do their work. You should do the following:

  • Remain calm and follow officers’ instructions.
  • Immediately raise your hands and spread your fingers.
  • Avoid making quick movements toward the officers, such as attempting to hold onto them for safety.
  • Avoid pointing, screaming and/or yelling.
  • Do not stop to ask officers for help or direction when evacuating. Just proceed in the direction from which officers are entering the premises.

Please also remember that a shooter could be a current or former employee, a member or a stranger. Here are signs to look for in employees or members that might show they are headed for a breakdown:

  • Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs.
  • Unexplained increase in absenteeism and/or vague physical complaints.
  • Increased severe mood swings and noticeably unstable or emotional responses.
  • Increasingly talks of problems at home.
  • Increase in unsolicited comments about violence, firearms and other dangerous weapons and violent crimes.

By following these steps, you can help keep your staff and members safer in the case of a shooter. But remember that for staff to react as they need to, they must practice these steps on a regular basis (at least once a year). It may seem like a hassle to take time out of your day to do this, but the practice will build confidence and teamwork among your staff members.


Jeff Walker is director of Licking County (OH) Office of Homeland Security, Emergency Management and 911 Services, Newark, OH. He also is Region Five president for the International Association of Emergency Managers, Falls Church, VA. He can be reached at

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