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Active Shooter Awareness: Sign Language Interpreters & Community Preparation

Active Shooter Awareness- Sign Language Interpreters & Community Preparation

In an active shooter incident, understanding expectations, communication, and protocols can save lives. Formal training and open dialogue between sign language interpreters and the Deaf Community is vital.

Tara Adams attended a country music concert with her hearing husband and thirteen of their hearing friends. She was the only person who was Deaf in her group. She has cochlear implants. On the last night of the festival, during the final performance of the night, she heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. She didn’t really pay any attention to it, thinking it was part of the performance. A minute later, she heard them again, louder this time, and then her husband grabbed her hand and they both started running. People all around them were shouting “get down!” and laying down on the ground, thinking the shooter was at ground level and they were taking shelter by laying down and remaining still. Tara and her husband also thought the shooter was level with them, but they decided to keep running away from the sound of gunfire. They wouldn’t know until much later that people were getting shot from a room high up in the Mandalay Bay casino. She looked at her husband and was glad they both were safe. So far. By that time, the threat was long over. Fortunately, there were not any Deaf casualties in Las Vegas. Fortunately, there were not any Deaf casualties in the recent shootings at a church in Texas or at the elementary school in Northern California.

The following questions arise each time we experience an incident of this kind:

  • How can Deaf people prepare for these kinds of incidents?
  • What is the role of sign language interpreters and/or other professionals who work in the Deaf Community?
  • Who provides training that would address all of these questions?

One thing is certain: Active Shooter Incidents are increasing in frequency and severity in the United States.

[View post in ASL]

Only a Matter of Time

To date, there have not been any casualties from Active Shooter Incidents in the Deaf Community. Some Deaf relatives have had family members who were victims, but it is only a matter of time before an individual who is Deaf or hard of hearing becomes a victim. Knowing what to do and preparing in advance are the best indicators for surviving any emergency or disaster, and in that respect, Active Shooter Incidents are no different. Preparation matters. Training and practice save lives. As First Responders say: it’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when.”  Bad things are going to happen. The only questions are when they will happen and whether individuals and communities are prepared for them. To date, only a small number of trainings have been conducted specifically for the Deaf Community.

Police and Fire Departments Constantly Train

In order to satisfy licensure maintenance requirements, police and fire department personnel must re-qualify, renew certifications, and/or complete a certain number of continuing education or POST credits. Departments maintain accreditation and permit requirements by providing training opportunities for their personnel and receive state and federal funding by performing exercises on a regular basis. They train. Constantly.

Police Are Not There To Save You

When law enforcement officers engage in an Active Shooter Incident, they have one priority: eliminate the threat. The “threat” is the shooter. An Active Shooter Incident differs from a hostage situation in that the hostage taker’s priorities are a ransom or other goal and taking hostages is a means to that end. An Active Shooter Incident is unique in that the goal of the shooter is to kill, maim, or injure as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Law enforcement engages these threats differently. In a hostage situation, the goal is the safety and well-being of the hostages. In an Active Shooter Incident, the goal is to eliminate the threat, which means locating and stopping the shooter. Getting victims to safety is secondary to eliminating the threat.

Police will check each person they find for weapons, assuming the shooter is hiding among the victims. Police will not get victims to safety until after the threat has been located and/or eliminated. Police will give verbal commands. Non-compliance with verbal commands will be met with physically forced compliance. Police are in a hurry to eliminate the threat, they will not be focused on being soft or light or courteous. They will pat-down each person they come across and then verbally order them to stay down and stay put. This certainly has implications for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals who may not have access to verbal orders.

Firefighters and Emergency Medical Services Stage at a Safe Distance

Firefighters typically arrive at an Active Shooter Incident after law enforcement has already arrived. They have specific protocol and procedure for responding to incidents where there is a live and active threat: staging at a safe distance. Firefighters and emergency medical personnel will arrive and prepare to receive casualties. They are trained not to enter dangerous areas until those areas are deemed clear of threats by law enforcement personnel.

Run, Hide, Fight

Law enforcement personnel are not there to save you. EMS is not coming until the threat is eliminated. You are on your own. Every individual is responsible to prepare themselves. Some municipalities offer Active Shooter Awareness training free to the public. Some companies offer training for a fee. Methods and modalities differ greatly. The most widely used curriculum for Active Shooter Awareness training follows three basic courses of action depending upon an individual’s proximity to the threat: Run, Hide, Fight.

If you can safely avoid or escape the area where an active shooter is, do so. That’s what “Run” means. If you can’t safely flee, conceal yourself in a safe location, turn out the lights, and remain quiet in order to evade detection by the shooter. That’s what “Hide” means. And if you encounter the shooter, cannot flee and cannot conceal yourself, defend yourself to the best of your ability. That’s what “Fight” means.

Place, time of day, physical conditions of the individual, and weather can all factor into which response will be the best course of action for each person. Preparation is personal and person-specific.

Roles and Responsibility of the Sign Language Interpreter

Sign language interpreting contracts typically have a “force major” clause which renders the contract null and void should an interpreting assignment end or be canceled due to inclement weather, natural disaster, or emergency. Technically speaking, once the shooting starts, the sign language interpreter’s contractual obligations to provide communication and other access has ended. Since the interpreter is not contractually or legally obligated to interpret, the question then becomes what other obligations compel the Interpreter to continue providing access to individuals who are Deaf in an Active Shooter Incident? The sign language interpreter’s own sense of community might compel them to respond in a cooperative way, remain with the Deaf clients, and continue to provide access. But they are under no obligation to place themselves in danger in order to serve others. Sign language interpreters are not first responders, and there is no reasonable expectation for them to respond in any specific way. Nor would it be appropriate to judge them or hold them accountable for what they choose to do or choose not to do during an Active Shooter Incident.

One of the principal tenets of citizen response to emergencies and disasters is placing one’s own personal safety as the top priority. It is impossible to help others when you yourself are injured or incapacitated. For that reason, one’s own personal safety must be priority number one. After that comes concern for the safety of others. Of course, there will always be those among us who make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Victoria Leigh Soto was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary school. When a shooter entered the school and began going room by room shooting everyone in sight, she placed herself between the shooter and her students. The shooter shot her several times, and she chose to shield her students with her own body, perishing as a result. Nothing about her employment contract with the school system compelled her to do so. She elected of her own free will and choice to protect her students at the expense of her own life. This may be seen as the correct course of action from the outside perspective, but it must be remembered that no one has the right to demand another person place themselves in danger in order to protect others.

Preparation is the Key to Effective Response

Active Shooter Awareness training provides the preparedness essentials necessary for citizens to be ready to respond appropriately in an Active Shooter Incident. This training is ideally conducted in a safe and controlled environment and with the participation of local law enforcement personnel. Coordination with local law enforcement agencies is essential to effective preparation as part of a whole community response. Advanced Bleeding Control is an essential training for all citizens also. This teaches the participant how to perform life-saving emergency first-aid to help stabilize victims long enough to get to a hospital and receive the care they need to recover. Find out when the next training is near you. Plan to attend. Learn all you can. Ask questions. Get answers. Then ask how you can volunteer for your local agency’s next exercise. As First Responders say, “You respond the way you train.” And they train all the time. If you are serious about learning what to do in emergencies and disasters, start training with them.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What are the moral/ethical considerations for an American Sign Language Interpreter for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing in an emergency situation?
  2.  What is the appropriate way to discuss plans in the event of an emergency between Sign Language interpreters and Deaf clients?
  3. Who is responsible for initiating the discussion?


  1. The Daily Moth. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from


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Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

“At-risk” and “sign language interpreter” are not synonymous for most people. Stephen Holter highlights some risk factors and preventative measures sign language interpreters can use to stay safe.

  • Walking through the lobby of the mental health facility, the sign language interpreter had no way of knowing that just a few short hours later, a gunman would open fire, killing the receptionist and injuring several others before turning the gun on himself.  
  • At a university campus in a different part of the country, a female interpreter is walking to her car after completing her night class assignment when she notices a male student from the class following her. Fearing for her safety, she reaches for her phone to call the police.
  • While on assignment interpreting a potentially volatile home visit for a social worker, an interpreter has a feeling of concern for her own safety after noticing that the door is locked behind her.  
  • While walking through the hall in a jail, a sign language interpreter is told by the guard that, if he tackles her, it will be for her own safety.   
  • In a psychiatric facility, an interpreter is suddenly assaulted. She has not been provided with a “panic button” that is routinely supplied to all other hospital staff in the event of such an attack.   

All of these situations are real and were provided by working sign language interpreters discussing personal safety concerns that exist on the job as part of their daily work.

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Personal Security and Sign Language Interpreters

A number of factors make the field of sign language interpreting unique in terms of personal security. Freelance interpreters are frequently called upon to work in novel settings at any hour of the day or night. The interpreter is often “alone” in the sense that they are not with others who are known to them. Some settings can be inherently dangerous.   

Sign language Interpreters frequently work in healthcare and social service settings. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 23,000 significant injuries due to assault at work. More than 70 percent of these assaults were in healthcare and social service settings. Health care and social service workers are almost four times as likely to be injured as a result of violence than the average private sector worker. (OSHA Updates)

In recent conference workshops, sign language interpreters were asked about the types of settings in which they experienced safety concerns. The most frequently mentioned setting was mental health hospitals. With HIPAA law, interpreters are often given little to no information about the patient. When this is the case, the interpreter may not be aware of the presenting concerns that led to the hospitalization of the patient. It may be the case that it is not the patient with whom the interpreter is working that is a danger, but rather others in the environment. Sign language interpreters who find themselves working in mental health settings would benefit from seeking out professional development opportunities that address working with individuals whose behaviors are escalating to the point of potential violence.  

What Can Sign Language Interpreters Do to Stay Safe?

While risks may be present in any number of settings that sign language interpreters work, there are some steps that may be taken to keep oneself safe. These include the following:

a. Situational Awareness

Regardless of the setting in which an interpreter works, a key factor that will help to keep one safer is situational awareness. This seems, of course, to be common sense but is often discounted. Maintaining alertness to what is occurring in your immediate environment will provide you with time to see approaching danger, react, and attempt to  get away from potential sources of threat.  

To practice developing situational awareness, one important habit is to begin assessing the environment you will be working in upon entering to identify at least two ways to exit the scene if a crisis starts to occur. For example, when interpreting for political candidates or concerts, the interpreter should be in the practice of locating the two nearest exits. Planning ahead will reduce confusion in the event there is a crisis and one of the exits is blocked.

b. Plug Into Notification and Alert Systems

University settings now have alert systems to notify staff and students of situations such as active shooter warnings. Contract interpreters, however, are often not “plugged” into the system to receive such notifications. One solution that has been discussed is ensuring that the agency that contracts with sign language interpreters is, in fact, set up on that system so that they may notify the interpreter of any such emergencies.

c. Be Your Own Bodyguard

As discussed in “Fight like a Girl…and Win; Defense Decisions for Women,” it is important to decide that one is one’s own bodyguard. It is good to have police and other first responders, but it takes time for them to respond and, by then, it may be too late. Realizing that there needs to be a certain degree of self-reliance is the first step to keeping safe.

d. Avoid Complacency

Complacency is clearly one of the greatest factors that compromise situational awareness. As sign language interpreters are racing from one assignment to the next, it is natural to be focused on reading text messages or catching up on voicemails. Attackers will look for easy targets. A person whose attention is focused on the phone is an easy target. In his book, “The Gift of Fear,”  Gavin DeBecker discusses how, rather than giving way to complacency, part of staying safe is tuning into the danger signals that may be provided by one’s own senses.

Interpreters should consider the anticipated length of an assignment when parking. For example, rushing to interpret an emergency room visit, the interpreter might be focused on the potential nature of the emergency. ER visits, however, may often run four or five hours. As such, the lighting in the area where the interpreter has parked may have changed considerably. This should be taken into account for all settings.

e. Stay Physically Fit

How can one become a less desirable target for a potential attacker? Attackers often want to have the greatest reward with the least amount of risk. Physical fitness comes into play in this regard as attackers will often prey on those whom they regard to be easy targets. If one is looking for a reason to get into better shape, this may be it. When looking at workout options, one form of training that may be sought is called Krav Maga. This is a defensive training which not only provides a physical workout, but also provides skills for defending oneself against varying types of physical assaults, including those involving weapons.

f. Utilize Non-Lethal Tools

Some people choose to carry non-lethal self-defense tools such as pepper spray/gel, taser, and a Kubaton. These tools all have relative pros and cons. While none of these tools above will incapacitate the attacker, they are, instead, used to momentarily stop the attacker long enough for one to get a safe distance away.  

Pepper spray or gel:  Pepper spray is small and portable and is available in containers that may look like lipstick. Pepper spray has a range of 8-20 feet and typically costs below $30. One drawback of pepper spray is that it may be affected by wind and be blown back into one’s own face. Pepper gel is now available that is not as subject to gusts of wind. These devices have safety locking mechanisms that require enough familiarity to be operated when one is panicked. Additionally, it will be important to retain control of the spray so that it may not be taken by the attacker and used on the victim.

Stun guns: Stun guns are a potentially effective means of incapacitation.  Like pepper spray, stun guns are also fairly inexpensive and portable. While pepper spray is to be used at a distance, a stun gun requires that one must be close enough to make contact with the attacker. Effectiveness of a stun gun, or lack thereof, also depends on battery life. As with pepper spray, one also need to be able to retain control of the device.  

Kubotan: Another self-defense tool is called a Kubotan. Looking like a pen made of hard plastic or metal, a kubotan may be attached to a keychain for easy access. A kubotan may be used for strikes against joints or fleshy areas for self-defense.  

Conscious Consideration is the Key

As evident in the points that were discussed above, self-protection for a sign language interpreter involves multiple dimensions. It begins with an awareness that some settings may be more inherently dangerous than others. Regardless of the setting, however, maintaining a situational awareness to dangers that may suddenly arise will give you more time to formulate a response that will get you out safely. With the dangers present in today’s world, giving conscious consideration to self-protection is time well spent.

There are multiple aspects that come into play when trying to keep oneself safe as a working interpreter. It begins with the awareness that one may be at risk, maintaining vigilance to recognize when danger might be approaching, and learning physical strategies that might be used in the event they are needed. By using this multi-tiered approach, sign language interpreters can enhance their ability to keep themselves safe.

Questions to Consider:

  1.   What potential security risks do you see while traveling to or within your work settings?
  1.    How do you think you can reduce each of these risks?
  1.   What local resources are available to you to increase your personal safety knowledge and skills?


Becker, G. D. (1997). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gervasi, L. H. (2007). Fight like a girl– and win: Defense decisions for women. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

OSHA guidelines for preventing workplace violence for … (2015, April 01). Retrieved September 2, 2016, from