It was only a security exercise, and employees at Cambridge Hospital knew it. But even then, it was terrifying when a police officer posing as a gunman burst in and started shooting blanks. An administrative assistant was shaking so badly she could barely dial 911. Workers who had locked themselves inside a ward refused to let police in, even after they slid their business cards under the door to prove who they were.
As mass shootings continue to traumatize the country, more employers are putting security measures in place to prevent or minimize bloodshed.
A few, like the Cambridge Health Alliance, which operates three hospitals in the Boston area, have gone to extremes, staging elaborate drills to anticipate how to deal with a gunman. Others, like the Cranston, R.I., manufacturing firm Taco Inc., are putting their employees through classroom training to identify exits, hiding places, and methods of fighting back. Many more companies have moved to make their facilities safer by locking doors, installing cameras, hiring security staff, and developing closer relationships with local police.
"We've absolutely seen an increase" in companies tightening their security protocols, said Matthew Lofaro, director of strategic development at APG Security, a New Jersey-based security firm with an office in Braintree. The firm started providing "active shooter awareness" seminars five years ago, and has held training for more than 75 clients nationwide since then, Lofaro said.
The preparedness drills and extra security were underway in many workplaces before the latest tragedy, a shooting that last week claimed the lives of 14 people at a developmental disabilities center in San Bernardino, Calif.
The rise in preparedness may have helped reduce the overall number of workplace homicides, security specialists say. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that figure fell from more than 1,000 in 1995 to just over 400 last year.
But nonfatal workplace incidents — someone bashing in the headlight on a coworker's car or stalking a fellow employee online, for example — happen with disturbing frequency, said Marian Ryan, the Middlesex County district attorney.Since 2010, Ryan's office has conducted free violence prevention training for companies, schools, and government agencies.
While shootings are rare, Ryan said, the lower-level violence can cause major disruptions at work.
"It puts the whole place on edge," she said. "It makes people frightened."
Businesses are starting to realize that identifying and confronting this less violent behavior early on might help prevent a catastrophe down the road, according to Eugene Rugala, a workplace violence prevention consultant in Beaufort, S.C.
"It might sound trite, but, 'If you see something, say something' really does work," Rugala said.
Mass shootings of all types have become increasingly prominent. In December of 2012, a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. In June, nine churchgoers were slain in Charleston, S.C. Last month, a man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.
It's hard to pinpoint when the prevalence of workplace security increased, but after each major event, security officials say, vigilance grows.
Today, many businesses have policies spelling out what behaviors should be reported and safety teams to evaluate potential threats. Managers have become more aware of their buildings' access points, and are working to protect potential high-risk areas such as reception desks.
Some have developed a way to instantly alert employees to a threat. For example, a front-desk attendant in a small office can simultaneously assuage an angry employee and tip off coworkers to a dangerous situation by using a predetermined phrase such as, "We're going to call the director of resolution," said Jean Haertl, who runs a workplace safety firm in Framingham.
Many companies have started putting employees through training sessions, ranging from online videos about how to respond to threatening behavior to full-scale drills like the one in Cambridge in which police help teach employees how to react to a gunman in the building.
Taco, the Rhode Island manufacturing firm, which has a plant in Fall River, recently put 500 employees through four hours of classroom instruction that spelled out the best ways to respond to a shooter.
The first choice: Run. Identify the best exits and then get out quickly.
The second option: Hide. Find a spot in a room without windows and with doors that lock, or duck behind large pieces of equipment.
The last resort: Fight. Locate a blunt object such as a stapler or fire extinguisher and attempt to disarm the gunman.
Figuring out these steps beforehand is key, Haertl said: "When you dial 911, it is too late."
Still, no amount of videos or classroom instruction can totally prepare workers for the real thing, said Dave Grof, director of safety at Taco.
"There is no logic in your life in a panic situation," he said. "It's one thing to think about. It's another thing to be looking down the barrel of an automatic weapon."
Some local companies were first spurred into action 15 years ago, after an employee at a Wakefield technology firm gunned down seven coworkers. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 less than a year later also put many organizations on alert.
Yet workplace violence continues, here and around the United States. Earlier this year, a man walked into Brigham and Women's Hospital and shot a cardiovascular surgeon who had treated his late mother.
The Middlesex County district attorney's office has seen such increased interest in its workplace violence prevention programs that it recently decided to move its January session to a bigger venue.
Employees at Enterprise Bank in Lowell attended one of the sessions a few months ago and is contemplating a number of improvements, including a more robust system to alert staff in the event of an incident, said Ken Lavallee, security specialist at the bank.
Health care facilities are particularly attuned to the possibility of workplace violence, and a few years ago, Boston-area hospitals teamed up to create an 11-minute training video, complete with tense violin music, that depicts an angry man barging into a hospital with a gun.
"As frightening as this is, workplace shootings just don't seem to be slowing down," said Christian Lanphere, director of emergency management at Cambridge Health Alliance. That organization learned valuable lessons from the drill it held in October at Whidden Hospital in Everett, learning that police radios don't work well inside the facility because the walls are so thick.
And despite the increased awareness, many companies may still not be doing enough to protect their employees.
"There's a huge problem with denial out there," said Michael McCourt, a principal with Risk Management Advisors in Rockland. "Despite the fact that they watch this every night on the news, they still believe, "This couldn't happen to us.' "