How AI Can Scour Data to Minimize Active Assailant Risk on Your Campus

The influx of actionable intelligence during an active assailant incident can be overwhelming to those responding. That's where AI comes in.
Published: October 29, 2021

College and university campuses are idyllic places steeped in all the goodness of higher education. They should offer a secure environment for students to learn, socialize and grow. But that sense of peace and security can be quickly shattered by an active assailant on campus.

An active shooter incident can occur anywhere at any time without warning, even though such events on college campuses are, fortunately, infrequent. Still, they are an ever-present threat, and campus safety professionals need to plan and prepare for the possibility one might occur. Consider, for example, that between 2000 and 2019, higher education institutions experienced 18 active shooter incidents, resulting in 82 wounded and 75 fatalities, according to the FBI’s Active Shooter Incidents 20-Year Review, 2000-2019

It doesn’t help that modern higher education institutions have become more vast and complex in recent years. Today’s administrators must support many different types of college students, from on-campus residents to remote learners. In addition, campus safety professionals must ensure the security of students, staff and faculty across multiple locations, from the main campus to satellite and international locations. Staying on top of emerging threats that may or may not impact one of the campuses requires diligent monitoring of thousands of sources – and fast decision-making when news of an incident breaks.

When lives are at stake, this sets a very high bar.

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At first glance, you might think that today’s campus safety professionals and administrators have an advantage. After all, they have access to hundreds of data feeds: from the news media, police, the National Weather Service, and even students and citizens themselves via social media. Yet, despite this abundance of information at their fingertips, campus leaders risk not having the intelligence they need to pinpoint the right location and orchestrate an effective response. In fact, too much information can be a barrier to detecting a valid threat and taking swift action.

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How to Proactively Minimize the Risk of an Active Shooter

What steps can colleges and universities take to get relevant information faster to protect students, faculty, and staff across multiple locations?

The key is to establish three essential components:

  1. An active shooter policy
  2. A crisis communications plan
  3. A system that can provide actionable intelligence

An active shooter policy defines the actions personnel need to take, should this scenario become a reality. In clear language, it should provide information and directions that staff and administrators need to act quickly.

A crisis communications plan lays the foundation for activating alerts and response teams. The plan should be built upon key learnings and successful practices from recent crises, such as ensuring messaging accuracy, communications preparedness details, and qualified crisis response team training. It includes pre-built message templates, a mechanism for ensuring all stakeholders’ contact information is up-to-date, and the right systems for delivering emergency alerts.

Most importantly, your crisis communications plan needs to accommodate a way to proactively identify and minimize relevant risk. And this comes down to having the right information at the right time by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) that is specifically oriented to your institution’s people, property and assets.

The Problem with an Abundance of Data

Dealing with an active shooter on your campus requires a cool head and precise information. The sheer volume of available data makes it impossible to use traditional, manual methods to quickly understand an unfolding incident.

That’s why technology is playing an increasingly important role in helping campuses stay safe. AI-powered risk intelligence accelerates analysis and identifies threats early. It constantly scours mountains of global data and uncovers relevant, actionable intelligence within moments of a critical event.

With actionable intelligence, campus safety professionals are alerted to both the critical event that’s taking place and of its potential impact to your institution and your people. It tells you exactly what happened, where it happened, whether the event is over or is ongoing, and if any of your students, faculty, staff or facilities are nearby.

Let’s take a more detailed look at the process:


With people and property in many locations, college and universities need to evaluate and track information from around the globe. An AI engine can bring in data feeds from numerous governmental entities, including the FBI, CDC and WHO. In addition, it can capture data feeds from local TV stations, newspapers, social media platforms and more.


Having too much data can be as paralyzing as not having any data at all. AI automatically extracts and cleans the data to identify the relevant information. You can set up rules to specify the types of threats or locations you want to protect (such as international campuses, for example).


Your response to severe weather that threatens your campus will be different than your response to an active shooter. AI can determine the type of event by identifying contextual clues (for example: Are a flood of students in the dining hall? Or is the dining hall at risk because of a flood?). Then, the event can be classified by type, such as flood, hurricane, crime or civil unrest.


You need to know how close the event is to your campus and community. Contextual clues are also used to pinpoint the specific location. For example, are the source reports referring to the University of Georgia in the United States? Or a university in the country of Georgia?


After the where, you need to know the when. Some forms of data (known as “structured” data) typically pinpoint the exact time an event occurred (i.e., 6:40 a.m.). “Unstructured” data, however, can refer to non-specific times (such as “early morning” or “late afternoon”).

AI evaluates dates and times to predict the most likely time the event in question took place — for example, whether “earlier this evening near the main quad” and “9:00 p.m. tonight a block from Stevens Hall” refer to the same incident on campus.


You want to know as quickly as possible if there’s an active shooter near your institution. But hundreds of stories about the incident can create a lot of noise, some of it inaccurate. AI looks for similarities in event details like type, location and time to create a single event profile with the most accurate information available.

How Technology Accelerates Crisis Response

During an active shooter incident, every minute counts, so you want to reduce time to resolution. But a ‘phone tree’ isn’t going to get the result you need in the shortest amount of time. With incident management capabilities, you can send crisis plans to response teams so they can act immediately and collaborate easily. Using a mobile and interactive interface, the right people can quickly access those plans you painstakingly created. There’s no time wasted looking for files or phone numbers.

Communication breakdown is the most significant issue that colleges and universities face as protocols don’t always exist. This is an issue that incident management can solve by reaching students, staff and other stakeholders by sending simultaneous messages across go-to platforms (e.g., text messages, app notifications on phones, emails, etc.). Reaching students with the correct information is key in allowing them to make informed and quick decisions that positively impact their safety and well-being.

Threat assessment teams, such as law enforcement, communications, human resources or mental health and counseling teams usually don’t have the bandwidth to sift through multiple state and county alerts about evolving critical events. They need information about what will impact their campus and people readily at their fingertips. Armed with true intelligence, administrators and security officials can confidently take decisive action.

Employees can collaborate in a system that provides task-based assignments and tracking, and even two-way chat. Stakeholders have visibility to check in on the situation and know what’s happening at any given time. The response team is synchronized across devices.

And, when it’s over, a chronological audit trail allows for a meaningful review that provides both accountability and insights for future improvement.

To fully prepare for the next large-scale critical event – whether it be an active shooter or other incident – campuses need critical event management backed by AI-powered risk intelligence. Disasters don’t wait, and neither should your college or university. Now’s the time to create a robust plan and leverage technology to create a safer educational experience for your students, staff, faculty and surrounding communities.

Troy Harper is director of government strategy for OnSolve®. Before joining OnSolve in 2013, Harper served 13 years as emergency management chief for Flagler County, Florida.

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Strategy & Planning Series
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