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Arts and Music Venues in North America Are Now Training Staff for ‘Active Shooter’ Situations

But not everyone agrees with the type of training, as Seattle staffers were told by police to fight back, not flee.

Sarah Berman

Sarah Berman

In Seattle and Calgary, venue staff are training up in case of attacks. Photo via Flickr user Avarty

Obviously, it's not the kind of advice and planning anyone wants to think about.

At a recent session put on by SWAT experts from the Seattle Police Department, show promoters, stage managers, theater security, and other arts staffers from across the city asked questions about how to respond when someone opens fire in a crowded venue.

Normally this kind of thing is reserved for schools and political offices, but the killing of dozens at an Eagles of Death Metal show in Paris last year changed all that. The two-part presentation titled "Safety in the Arts: Active Shooter Training" was the first of its kind aimed directly at the city's arts venues, according to Seattle's alt weekly The Stranger.

At close range in a packed concert, SWAT officer Jeff Geoghagan had some harsh, counter-intuitive suggestions. He advised about 200 people from more than 50 arts organizations not to flee, but to fight.

"Whoever is closest to that person—patron, usher, staff, performer—fights. I'm gonna tell you right now, there are no means of protection right here. This person is in the theater armed with a firearm and they're shooting people—you need to fight," he told the crowd. "That is the best chance you have of minimizing the loss of life, period."

Fighting is the last option in the "run, hide, fight" method used by most trainers in the field. An invite from the City of Seattle's arts and culture office named frequent mass killings—"every two months in the United States"—as reason for the session.

New York's police department put on similar training for restaurants and nightclubs earlier this year, closely following mass shootings in San Bernardino and Paris. In Calgary, Canada major arts and theater venues have also added "active shooter" plans to their list of security and safety needs.

"I think it's going to be a trend across Canada for sure," said David Mikkelsen of Arts Commons, which runs the Martha Cohen and Jack Singer theaters, among others.

Mikkelsen oversees security for all Arts Commons venues. He says they've trained about 100 ushers, bartenders, backstage managers, and other venue staff, and plan to have a more formal process in place by the fall. He says they've been in talks for about a year now, pushed to action by reports of in-venue attacks.

"We already have artists, schools, and other clients asking for our plan," Mikkelsen said. "They just make sure we have a plan in case of an active shooter, fire, or any other issue."

But Mikkelsen says not everyone is onboard with this kind of planning. "You have a wide spectrum of people's opinions. There are some who believe it'll never happen here, and then the people who take it as a serious threat."

Other Canadian cities are slower to jump on the "active shooter" training bandwagon. "This is not something we have done," Constable Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department wrote in an email. Montague said the VPD have run these kinds of emergency drills in Vancouver schools.

VICE reached out to about a dozen mid- and large-size arts venues in both Vancouver and Toronto, but did not hear back.

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