What is a Soft Target?
A soft target is a location or place that is vulnerable due to its lack of security or protection, though is often populated by groups of people. To understand the threats posed to soft targets, it’s important to identify what makes them susceptible to intimidation and acts of violence and terrorism.
Soft Targets Versus Hard Targets
Examples of soft target locations include libraries, malls, movie theaters, and houses of worship, as well as public venues and events. Each location allows public access to anyone who wishes to enter.
On the other hand, an example of a soft target that transitions into a hard target is the airport. In most airports, the check-in and baggage claim areas are widely accessible to the public making them both more susceptible to violent activity. The airport becomes a hard target location to travelers only once they’ve made it past the point of security. The standard airport security process in the United States includes full-body scanners and/or metal detectors and a thorough search of all traveler belongings through computer tomography (CT) scanners.
The Risk for Soft Targets
Soft target locations are mostly at risk for their welcoming environments. They open the possibility of welcoming the wrong people, and the risk of violence is particularly high in places where modern conflict is apparent, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques. Sadly, in the case of Sutherland Springs, TX, several families with adults and children were in attendance for the Sunday morning service when a lone gunman stormed through the door with a semi-automatic rifle, claiming the lives of 24 people and injuring 26 others.
“People may go to a house of worship and have a mindset that it’s not going to happen here,” former law enforcement officer Marianne Alvarez told the Huffington Post. “It’s a place where you feel safe. It’s a sanctuary. [If an attack does occur] it’s a huge shock and they might freeze.”
The Texas Church incident was not the first shooting to take place in a soft target location and it won’t be the last. The horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, NV took place during a largely attended music festival, and community events are becoming increasingly vulnerable. In November, a man drove a truck onto a public path in New York City, killing eleven people and injuring a dozen others. The event left cities and smaller communities struggling to understand how best to protect public spaces.
Hardening Soft Target Locations
No one person can be solely responsible for hardening soft target locations. To be successful in this initiative, there must be a never-ending commitment from law enforcement, community officials, employers, event coordinators, and public citizens alike. Here are proven strategies that can be applied by the whole community to enhance security at soft target locations.
The Public Divide
Is there an effective response that doesn’t pertain to gun or weapons? To answer this question, we must first recognize role of politics and society in risk management. One of the most widely debated topics in American politics to date surrounds gun regulation. In parts of the United States, lawmakers have voted in favor of increasing armament to harden soft target locations, while other regions have proposed universally stricter gun legislation.
One state is taking on a stronger approach to protecting their congregations through the use of armed security volunteers. Texas is one of several states that have passed laws to waive state requirements on armed security detail training, licensing and background checks. Similar to houses of worship in the state of Texas, Bishop Darnell Dixon of Raleigh, NC believes the best way to protect his church is with armed defenders. After Sunday’s massacre in Texas, Dixon told CBS News “If I call people together, it is incumbent on me to make sure that they are safe.” In states with minimal gun regulation for civilians, soft targets may choose this course of action.
There are examples to suggest this strategy for hardening soft target locations works. For instance, the gunman that attacked churchgoers in Colorado Springs in 2007 was shot and killed by an armed security member inside the church. Other states, including Mississippi, are following Texas’s lead to reduce the requirements needed to hire staff armed security in a house of worship.
Vehicles as Weapons
Gun-related incidents aren’t the only challenge that cities are facing when it comes to hardening soft target locations. In New York, the Transportation Security Administration has issued a warning to the trucking industry and areas that might be impacted that large vehicles are being used to as weapons. The city has also put up larger barriers between pedestrian areas and the streets of the city, and upped security detail in high-density pedestrian areas during high profile events.
Cities outside of New York have also started to plan for potential targeting of pedestrian areas. These states will be more committed to investing in helpful technology, planning landscape and infrastructure with barriers in mind, and closing streets during high-traffic events.
Not surprisingly, additional challenges are forced upon the facility managers of religious and government organizations. Because religious buildings are commonly designated as historical landmarks, there are often restrictions on how the facade and interior can be modified. Working around cosmetic restrictions, a common security-enhancing strategy for hardening soft target locations is the implementation of technology.
– Anonymous tip-texting: These tools are often leveraged by agencies and organizations to empower their people to share information and prevent dangerous situations from happening in the first place. (Continue on to the next section titled “Crowdsourced Solutions” for real examples of how anonymous tip texting is being used in the real world today.)
– Security Metal Detectors: are used to detect guns, knives and other weapons from entering a populated facility or event to prevent an attack. These systems are widely used in schools, courthouses, airports as well as private and public events.
– Monitoring Social Media: According to the blog Five Security Trends Boosting Event Safety, “Information found on the web can provide better insight into the potential behavior and intentions of event attendees, especially if the event is focused on sensitive or political topics. It can also help public officials plan ahead to ensure they have enough event safety staff by estimating the total number of attendees listed on social media event pages.”
– Panic Button Systems: Modern technology has proven to facilitate a faster response to unprecedented crises at soft target locations, such as a panic button mobile app designed to enhance coordination between facility staff members and first responders. Take a city’s public library for example. If an attack were to occur, a library staff witness could activate the app to simultaneously notify all other onsite employees and first responders with the push of a button.
– SMS Opt-in Systems: At the most recent Kentucky Derby, event organizers used an SMS opt-in system where Derby attendees could text a short code to be opted-in to event communications. An important note to make is the necessity to increase the perceived value of the system to attendees by incorporating relevant non-emergency communications (e.g. traffic issues) as well – often opting in to solely receive safety messages is not as strong a message as one that is perceived as having more immediate value.
– Facility Floor Mapping: Comprehensive data about a soft target location can be entered into a facility profile database. When an emergency call is received, the 911 call taker accesses the data and passes it onto first responders traveling to the scene of the incident. A facility profile database enables incident managers to upload details about the layout of the business and the best access points, floor plans, utility shut-off points, AED locations and alarm information. Contact information for incident managers and security personnel should also be included, as well as access codes and potential hazards. (Continue on to the next section titled “Crowdsourced Solutions” for a model of how community members can facilitate the soft target location data made available to first responders in an emergency.)
– Mass Notification: Throughout the duration of an emergency incident, law enforcement and incident managers can leverage a mass notification system to maintain two-way communication with employees via voice, SMS messaging and email – ensuring maximum situational awareness and enabling employees in need of assistance to receive help in the fastest time possible.
THE A.L.I.C.E. PLAN
In addition to leveraging a mass notification system for faster communication, there are measures that can applied by the public to minimize the impact of an attack as well.
For instance, the ALICE training institute is a solution that every member of a community can endorse. ALICE is a program run by former law enforcement officer Marianne Alvarez that aims to prepare institutions for an active shooter event. Alvarez once worked as the director of security at a church and has included houses of worship in her preparedness training. ALICE is an acronym that stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate, which is the cornerstone of Alvarez’s plan to strengthen security and response at soft target locations during a violent attack.
The ALICE methodology can also be integrated with your communication plan. Such an integration may include isolating or locking out an assailant, countering by any means possible even if it is merely distraction, evacuating to safety as the opportunity arises, enabling those who evacuated to virtually confirm they are safe, as well as enforcing a constant flow of communication with those still in danger.
Anonymous Tip Texting Use Case
Another form of effective crowdsourcing solutions is anonymous tip texting. At the University of South Florida, for example, the possibility of an active shooting was prevented thanks to a USF student witness and Campus Police. The unnamed student witness leveraged a mobile app provided by the University to anonymously report a fellow student’s possession of a .25 caliber pistol in his dorm room. Through the app, Campus Police were able to immediately acquire the information needed to respond and arrested the armed student. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
The Massachusetts (MA) State Police is another agency that leverages an anonymous tip solution to connect with their community and collect information during critical events. For instance, MA State Police used the technology to collect information from the public after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, they also used the information to solve the Baby Doe mystery when a three-year-old girl was found in the Boston Harbor with no trace of identification or reports of a missing child.
Crowdsourced Floor Mapping Model
Enlisting a facility manager or safety official to provide soft target location data requires a trusted critical data solution and a new “social contract.” Below is a model from our earlier blog post Mapping Indoor Spaces for Emergency Response, which outlines the indoor floor mapping challenges and the most effective solutions (traditional versus crowdsourced) to each challenge:
Timely and Accurate Communication
In preparation for a violent incident, it is critical to consider the time it will likely take for first responders to arrive at the scene, especially in locations where only a small number of law enforcement officers are on duty at a given time.
Timely and accurate communication at the start of an attack and throughout the incident is critical to preventing the spread of confusion, injury and false rumors. Specifically in the case of an active shooter incident, most of the fatalities will occur within the first 3 minutes of the attack.
During the Las Vegas massacre on October 1, 2017, for example, a lone gunman stood from his Mandalay Bay hotel suite on the 32nd-floor and opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival, killing 58 people and injuring 546 others. Witnesses of the attack reported being unsure of what was happening, and were at first convinced the sounds of rapid firing were actually fireworks. A man two floors below the gunman’s room knew immediately what was going on, but couldn’t get a hold of anyone quick enough. Communication was critical in this high-stake situation because the faster people were informed the faster they could react to the information by sheltering in place, evacuating or avoiding the dangerous area.
A Whole Community Effort
Recent events have posed increased security risks to soft target venues like houses of worship and other public and community spaces. Law enforcement, safety managers, and communities alike can implement some of these strategies for hardening soft target locations to try and prepare for these events, and by rethinking emergency preparedness in the case of these soft-target attacks, will look to minimize the hurt and damage.
The nature of soft targets makes them difficult to protect, and every emergency management team must decide which practices and strategies to implement. It’s important that the public understands these safety practices, and while the recent attacks on soft targets are a matter of concern, there are ways to be proactive when it comes to protecting these public institutions and spaces.