An incident at an Arizona senior living community last week holds lessons for other providers regarding the importance of having an emergency preparedness plan in place that includes what to do in case of an active shooter event.

The plan developed by Westchester Senior Living in Tempe, AZ, was set into motion just after 9 a.m. Wednesday when, according to police, 19-year-old Dalvin Hollins was shot by a lieutenant in the community’s parking lot. Hollins, according to an account police provided to McKnight’s Senior Living, had just left a nearby Walgreens drug store, where he had obtained liquid narcotics after telling a pharmacist that he had a firearm and threatening to kill employees.

After he was shot, Hollins ran to the main entrance of one of Westchester’s buildings, which contains a secured, 16-apartment assisted living memory care wing as well as a nursing home that currently has 46 residents, according to Deborah Perry, director of standards and policy for Volunteers of America, which owns and operates the community.

“The receptionist who staffs that entrance area heard the police sirens and heard what she thought was a gunshot, so she got up and locked the front door right before he came to the door,” Perry, who works in the Eden Prairie, MN, corporate office of Volunteers of America, told McKnight’s Senior Living. Westchester’s main door normally is unlocked and watched by the receptionist during business hours and is locked otherwise, she added.

When Hollins was not able to enter the building through its main entrance, Perry said, he found a door nearby that was open to the community’s maintenance room, where an employee was working. “He went into the room, elbowed or somehow physically jostled our employee and got him out, and then he barricaded himself in that tool room,” she said.

Police blocked the community’s driveway, she said, and the property was surrounded by a SWAT team. “Everything happened very, very fast, because he was already being pursued, so there were police on site almost at the exact time he came on to our campus grounds,” Perry said.

Inside the building, she said, employees lined up most of the skilled nursing residents in two rows of wheelchairs in a “safe harbor” location in a hallway, ready to evacuate if necessary. “Police were actually in the building at that point, and they were at both ends of the hall guarding or protecting those residents,” Perry said. Memory care residents remained in their secured setting, she added.

“It took some time to get the bed-bound residents into wheelchairs. You don’t think about that,” Perry said. “And this happened in Tempe, AZ, right outside of Phoenix, in July. The temperature outside was about 112 degrees. So that was another factor. So the safest option in those circumstances was for residents to stay inside, especially since the police were within and guarding them.”

Events unfolded so quickly that there wouldn’t have been time to evacuate anyway, Perry said the community’s executive director told her.

Three care center residents who were not in the building at the time, as well as a small number of independent living residents who live in another building with assisted living residents, temporarily were escorted to an optometry clinic across the street from the community, she said.

The active shooter event ended when police found Hollins dead in the community’s maintenance room. News reports indicate that police have not found the weapon that Hollins reportedly told drug store employees he had.

Westchester employees were offered counseling last week, and it will be offered as needed going forward, Perry said. Employees “certainly stepped up and performed during the time, but then when it’s all over and it kind of all settles in, there was some reaction, and so we wanted to make sure that those employees got support,” she said.

Plan developed in 2015

 Lessons from Tempe
  • Ensure that your emergency response plan details how your community will respond during and after an active shooter event. Involve local law enforcement and employees when developing the plan. Consider whether, when and where to evacuate residents and staff and what to do if evacuation isn’t feasible. Include plans on how you will communicate with people inside and outside of the community during and after the event. Have provisions for how counseling will be offered to those affected by the event.
  • Practice your plan.
  • Adjust your plan as needed.

Westchester developed its active shooter preparedness plan with local law enforcement last year in part as a reaction to a November 2015 mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO, during which a nearby nursing home and other businesses went into lockdown, Perry said. That nursing home was not owned by Volunteers of America, she noted, but the organization operates a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility there and subsequently encouraged its communities to develop active shooter preparedness plans.

“They did staff training on that plan just in December,” Perry said of Westchester employees. She recommended the Federal Emergency Management Agency website as a resource for communities looking to incorporate active shooter preparedness plans into their emergency response plans. The Department of Homeland Security website also offers online resources, as does the National Center for Assisted Living website.

For other senior living communities developing plans, she advised: “Involve your interdisciplinary team with the plan, and your local law enforcement agencies, and let your families know in some way that you have given some thought to this and have a plan in place.”

Ensure that the plan includes provisions for communicating with family members and others during and following the event, Perry added. After the event at Westchester ended, she said, staff members needed to tend to residents, so employees in Volunteers of America’s corporate office in Minnesota provided family members with the latest information.

“We were able to get the list right away of primary emergency contacts, and we made the calls to the family members that afternoon, just letting them know that, ‘This happened. Everything’s fine. Nobody’s been hurt. We wanted you to know,’ ” Perry said. “It was a short message, but we thought it was important to give that outreach.”

It also was important to notify people as soon as possible, she added, especially because media outlets were covering the news live and were posting updates online and via social media.

Now that the Tempe senior living community has gone through the experience, she said, staff members will fine-tune the plan as needed, including in the process local law enforcement and employees who were part of it.

Initial feedback indicates that the existing plan was successful, however, Perry said. “The executive director told me that the employees performed very, very well both during the situation and in the aftermath, and that the police also were complimentary in how they handled it,” she said.

“I’m just so, so proud of them,” Perry added. “These employees come to work every day wanting to do the best they can to make the residents who live there comfortable and keep them safe, never thinking that something like this would come into their workplace or the space that our residents call their home.”