How One Association Handled an Active Shooter Incident in Conference City

RIMS was well-prepared for a crisis before its convention earlier this month. But a mass shooting that happened a few miles from the conference location revealed what its emergency plan missed.

On the afternoon of May 3, RIMS–The Risk Management Society was preparing to wrap up a successful annual conference in Atlanta and conduct what CEO Gary LaBranche, FASAE, CAE, called a victory lap. “All we had to do was the closing general session, a quick staff celebration, and then the closing reception,” he said.

Those plans were quickly upended, though, when RIMS staff learned that an active shooter was at large about two miles from the conference site, the Georgia World Congress Center. Senior RIMS staff quickly convened with officials from the city, police, and convention center staff. Though there was some distance between the conference center and the shooter, the police perimeter included some of the conference hotels and shuttle-bus routes. 

Though nobody associated with RIMS was affected, staff returned to the office rethinking its crisis response plan.

RIMS had written, vetted, and trained staff on a 60-page crisis management handbook that included information on active-shooter situations. But the handbook’s scope turned out to be too narrow. “Our plan was focused on what happens at the building, or to the building, or in that building,” said Stuart Ruff-Lyon, RIMS’ Chief of Events and Sales. “It didn’t really take into account what happens in the rest of the city.”

As information about the shooter’s whereabouts shifted—and in some cases later proved unreliable—RIMS began updating attendees on what it knew about the situation, recommending that attendees stay in their hotel rooms until receiving an all-clear. That required multiple points of contact, LaBranche said, from emails to signage at the Georgia World Congress Center. Though the event had a dedicated app, approximately half the attendees hadn’t downloaded it, and many had turned off notifications from it. RIMS sent out emails, and LaBranche recorded a video that was posted to the conference homepage

A suspect in the mass shooting, which killed one person and injured four, was captured by authorities that evening. Though nobody associated with RIMS was affected, staff returned to the office rethinking its crisis response plan. 

One avenue it’s exploring, Ruff-Lyon said, is enabling participant-wide text messaging in the case of a similar incident. “We do collect [attendees’] cell phone numbers as part of their registration,” he said. “Now we’re looking at the software and working with our IT department. We’d only use it for an emergency situation.”

Another step it’s taken is tightening security around next year’s conference in San Diego, hiring extra security to ensure that only conference badge holders have access to the facility. Ruff-Lyon recommended that association events planners take a close look at their contracts regarding security for all facilities relating to an event and police availability—the Georgia World Congress Center, for instance, has its own force—with special attention paid to gun laws in the state where the event will be held. 

“No organization that ever goes through one of these situations will say that they did everything perfectly,” LaBranche said. “We certainly didn’t. We’ve learned a lot, and the fundamental, big learning is that if you have a citywide convention, you have to have a citywide crisis management and communication plan.”


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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