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Venues face tough realities in city’s active shooter training

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

“Remember that the intent of this person is to end your life.”

Those sobering words, delivered last Wednesday by Austin Police Department Officer Josh Visi, came as something of a wake-up call for the 40 or so concert venue owners and promoters who had gathered to learn how to handle active shooters inside a live concert setting.

The training was organized jointly by APD and the city’s Music and Entertainment Division to give live event professionals information they can use in preparation for South by Southwest, the busiest stretch of business every year for downtown concert venues, with visitors from all over the globe passing through their doors.

Visi, who has given similar trainings to businesses and organizations all over Austin in recent years, spent the three-hour session at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center instructing how to prepare a venue for safe evacuation or find safe cover to protect people before a shooter can be neutralized.

The scenarios presented were new for many of those on hand, who had rarely if ever considered how to use the nearest blunt object as a weapon, or how to position a filing cabinet in a back office so it can be quickly moved to barricade a door.

“Any target hardening you can do is good, but there’s no one thing you can do to make you immune from crime,” Visi said. “Even if you follow every suggestion I give to you, that in no way is going to make you immune from crime.”

Some venue operators shared that South by Southwest is the one time of year they see a significant number of guests attempting to bring firearms into venues with them. In the past decade-plus there hasn’t been a live shooter situation in an Austin venue, but event professionals are still using the lessons learned from the 2014 SXSW incident when a drunk driver fleeing police ran into a crowd of people outside Mohawk nightclub, killing four.

Erica Shamaly, director of the Music and Entertainment Division, said her experience on the management team at ACL Live during the November 2015 shooting attacks at a Paris concert hall showed her how important it is for venues to think ahead to prepare for such emergencies.

“Here in Austin – the venue community – we’re a very close-knit community and coming from ACL Live into this role, I have the benefit of truly understanding security and how important that it is to have good plans and training,” she said. “Over the last year we’ve been talking with APD about getting this training in place and we found this opportunity to get this done before South by Southwest, so we can get more information out there about what you can do as a community because we all know, and fans need to know what they can do.”

At the conclusion of the event, Shamaly and many others casually discussed ongoing training and preparation each venue can do, with the possibility that the city-led sessions could become an annual offering.

Cody Cowan, the former Mohawk general manager who is now executive director of the Red River Cultural District, said event professionals and venue owners have to accept that preparation and advance training is the only way to maximize chances of survival in the event of a live shooter episode or some other emergency.

“The people who have to make the hard decisions are the leadership team, who are there for a reason,” he said. “You can’t be everywhere when something is happening. Speaking from experience with the night of South by Southwest (2014), when people start fleeing there are going to be different things that happen every time, but you have to have your key people you can trust under pressure and you know it’s been discussed what to do when things go wrong.”

Photo by Nash Cook [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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