Random Acts of Violence

October 10, 2018

Emergencies come in all shapes, sizes and dangers – is your veterinary hospital prepared?

The following is an actual account of a real situation.

It is around 7 pm on a Thursday night and I’m sitting at my office desk finishing out my nightly duties.  My desk is arranged in a small office behind the reception counter, so I can always be one step away from the action.  My back is turned when I suddenly hear what I can only describe as a commotion.

A fraction of a second later, I hear the panicked voice of my young receptionist.  Now my memory is like one of those movies when everything slows down.  Way down.  I’ve turned around to see a black handgun in my face, held by a person wearing a ski mask.  He is telling us to get on the ground.  As in many hospitals, we have no obvious cash register, so he proceeds to our treatment area to locate our safe where I know he will encounter more team members.

I’m now on my stomach, looking at the carpet.  I slowly move, so not to be seen, and activate the silent alarm button from under the reception desk. A few minutes later, the gunman emerges and runs out the front door.  I pause for a moment to be sure he is really gone.

Now my mind and body go into recovery mode as I check on everyone in the clinic, including the clients that were in an exam room.  One client had called the police from his cell phone as our technician served as a lookout.  A few minutes later, a uniformed officer enters the hospital.  The remaining hours of that evening are a blur of activity.  Team members calling their families, officers taking reports and a victim advocate interviewing each of us.

Our clinic was located in a moderately sized suburb of Denver.  Very little crime and surely nothing like an armed robbery had occurred in the vicinity.  This was something that I only saw on the news and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the victim.

When thinking about emergency preparedness, I always thought about situations like floods, hurricanes, tornados, power outages and the like.  Never did my hospital’s emergency plan contain instructions for dealing with acts of violence.

That was about to change.

Things I learned

Prepare your team.  This should be done through training and drills.  They should know where emergency notice systems are located and how to activate them if they exist (like the silent alarm I referred to in my story).  Emergency phone numbers should be easy to access.  Team members should know what to do in these situations.

A simple step by step plan is always good when you are dealing with times of high stress, like an armed robbery.  I always make sure my team knows that there is NOTHING worth the risk of their own lives.  If the gunman asks for money, give it to him.  If he asks for drugs, give up the drugs.  No one needs to be a hero and it is only money/supplies.  Those can be replaced, but people can’t.

Plan out post trauma support.  The most difficult part of trauma is the aftermath.  Remember that the recovery from an event like this doesn’t just go away after the event.  There is A LOT of support that is needed in these situations.

Using your local law enforcement resources is a good start.  They have victim advocates that are trained for these situations.  Other outside counseling services are also very valuable.  There is nothing like an armed robbery to make you question every person you see and don’t know.

I became very hyper-sensitive to all the people around me.  A swirl of emotions go on in your head for days, months and even years after the event.  I can remember how angry I was at this person for taking away the comfort I had in my town and at my job.  Post traumatic stress is a very big deal and without support can lead to some ugly places for your team.  Don’t skimp on this part.

Moving forward from that evening, I do what I’ve been trained to do in management.  I used it as a learning experience and set things in motion so I’m better prepared for the next time.  I remind myself that emergencies are not an IF, they are a WHEN.

There was nothing we could have done to prevent the incident.  Like many emergencies, things happen, and we need to respond.  It is being properly prepared for each category of emergency that makes the difference and remembering that your emergency plans include preparation AND recovery.

Jamie Davis, CVPM