In early January, Adam Armando Hernandez, a young man with a criminal record for aggravated assault, allegedly fired shots and took two hostages outside Chandler Fashion Center in Chandler, Ariz.

The incident occurred just days before Jared Loughner was arrested and charged for a shooting that took place in a shopping center parking lot in Tucson, Ariz., killing six and wounding 13, including the target of the attack, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Not surprisingly, the latter incident captured the attention of the nation’s media with the shocking number of victims and the high profile target. But shopping center owners and managers may have more to learn from what happened at Chandler Fashion Center.

As the incident in Chandler unfolded, the police department thought that in trying to leave the property, the suspect might have blended in with the hundreds of customers and employees on site. As the police tried to track down their target, they were concerned that keeping shoppers in the mall potentially put them in harm’s way.

But mall management and security staff had a plan in place that was previously worked out with the police. They were able to evacuate customers and store employees from the site while the police focused on the alleged shooter. In the end, after a three-hour standoff inside a Baja Fresh restaurant, Hernandez turned himself into police custody and let his hostages free.

To be sure, there are stark differences between incidents like Chandler—where there is an opportunity for mall personnel and police officers to deescalate the situation—and what happened in Tucson, where events unfolded quickly and it was clear from the start that the attacker was hell bent on wreaking havoc. So it is the incidents like Chandler—which are more frequent—in which training and preparedness make a big difference in how things end.

In this case, no one ended up hurt in part because the mall’s staff knew what to do. It had participated in annual training sessions with the help of the local police department, according to Kimberly Hastings, a spokesperson for the Macerich Co., the Santa Monica, Calif.-based REIT that owns Chandler Fashion Center. The training—an eight-hour session that covers possible disaster scenarios and how to handle them—meant that property management and security personnel knew how to collaborate with first responders.

“They go through the motions of what ifs: for example, you hear shooting, how do you respond?” says Hastings. “I think it absolutely helped” during the January shootout.

It’s an example of what an increasing number of mall owners and managers are doing by beefing up on training for mall personnel. In many cases they are running sophisticated drills—often by collaborating with local first responders with the financial backing of the Department of Homeland Security—to ensure that they know exactly how to respond to life and death situations.

Mall and shopping center owners in the U.S. have been under pressure to improve security procedures ever since 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has long identified retail facilities as soft targets—public venues that are relatively unguarded or difficult to guard effectively.

In recent years, got more urgent.

In the incident at Chandler Fashion Center, Hernandez wasn’t specifically targeting the mall—the police allege he was just trying to get away from the site of a nearby robbery. It shows that malls, because of their crowds and size, can be attractive for people on the run.

Yet there have also been shooters who have come onto mall premises with the intent to harm people. For example, a horrific attack took place in December 2007, when 19-year-old Robert A. Hawkins walked into Westroads Mall in Omaha, Neb. with a semi-automatic rifle and opened fire on holiday shoppers, killing eight people and wounding four others before turning the gun on himself. Hawkins had a history of mental health problems. Shortly before the attack he lost his job at a McDonald’s restaurant and broke up with his girlfriend.

Cases like these have led some mall owners to stage simulated attacks and organize regular lockdown drills in an effort to improve responses to potential threats. Among these is the Triple Five Group, which owns the Mall of America, a 2.5-million-square-foot behemoth in Bloomington, Minn., arguably the most high-profile retail venue in the country.

“If you look across the U.S. and throughout the world, active shooters have been more and more prevalent,” says Heidi Buegler, emergency operations captain with the Mall of America. “We looked at some incidents and did case studies on them, including the shooter at Westroads Mall. And we realized we wanted to make sure that we had procedures in place that would cover a wide range of things.”

The benefits from the drills cannot be ignored, according to John Karlovic, a member of National Security Consultants and head of the security division with Cafaro, a Youngstown, Ohio-based mall owner. Cafaro has been staging simulated attacks at its shopping centers for several years now, with the help of public agencies.

“It helps people to cooperate; it improves communication between the private and public sectors; it improves communication between the police department, the fire department, the hazmat squad,” Karlovic says. “And it also improves the tactics of the police department on how they want to attack various scenarios.”

An ounce of prevention

Karlovic first conceived of on-site training exercises in 2007, after a spate of attacks at malls, including a shooting that left five people dead and four wounded at Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time, he was visiting Cafaro’s South Hill Mall in Puyallup, Wash. During a meeting with the local police chief, Karlovic floated the idea of lending the South Hill Mall to the police department for an active shooter exercise.

“They jumped on that idea,” he says.

Since then, Cafaro has completed on-site training at about 75 percent of its properties, with multiple runs at some centers. By the end of the year, the company would like to conclude the first round of training of employees at the entire portfolio. Going forward, Cafaro hopes to repeat the exercises on an annual basis if possible. “There is a need to keep people up to date on training, so it’s an ongoing process,” says the company spokesman.

To minimize disruption to business, the exercises take place outside normal operating hours, sometimes on a Sunday morning, sometimes after the mall closes at night. In addition to the mall staff and local police and fire departments, many retailers opt to participate in the training as well, to make sure they know where to go and what to do in case of an incident.

Department stores are often particularly enthusiastic, according to Karlovic, because they tend to have their own security departments that benefit from the extra training. Typically, department store security guards concentrate on theft and shoplifting and might not receive a lot of training on how to deal with shooters or bomb threats.

In addition, Cafaro is able to recruit volunteers from the local community to act as shoppers and attack victims.

The simulated scenarios vary by property. At centers closer to urban areas, which generally have larger and better-funded police departments, the drills often involve multiple attack components. For example, when Cafaro ran an exercise at the Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg, Va., it featured a shooter, bomb threats, the taking of hostages and a lot of injured shoppers.

At centers in more remote locations, however, the drills are often limited to simulating an attack by a lone gunman.

To better prepare, mall personnel and first responders are only clued in on to some details about the impending “attack,” but not all of them. During a recent run at the Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport, W.V., those involved in the planning of the event knew it would include a fake homemade bomb.

But the narcotics cops playing the attackers upped the ante by placing five fake bombs in various parts of the mall. At the end of the day, the drill simulated six deaths while the police struggled to find all of the hidden fake explosives.

That’s when the exercises might be the most valuable—when they expose vulnerabilities that may not otherwise be apparent, Karlovic says.

Mall personnel and police officers often forget that as the attack is in progress, there might be people having heart attacks, panicked parents showing up to claim their children or teenagers trying to get a glimpse of the action.

At those moments, decisions have to be made quickly on how to handle the thousands of people present in the building.

“You’ve got to contend with 6,000 or 7,000 people who are shopping there or going to a movie,” says John Richley, director of operations with the Cafaro Co. “These events demonstrate there is panic when the [attacks] occur. How do you deal with it? Do you keep all the people in place or get them off the property? You’ve got to manage that.”

There might also be technical or layout issues with the property that need to be addressed. For example, at Cafaro’s Governor’s Square Mall in Clarksville, Tenn., the police and fire departments realized they could not communicate with each other inside the property because their radio signals kept breaking up. As a result, Cafaro and the City of Clarksville jointly invested $20,000 in repeater equipment to boost signal strength. Cafaro paid roughly $6,000; the city footed the rest of the bill.

Plus, Cafaro realized how important it is for the first responders to have accurate, up-to-date maps of its properties, pinpointing locations of individual tenants, access points, fire exits and roof hatches. The company now supplies those to police and firefighters on an annual basis.

“When a local firefighter or police officer goes through the mall on a shopping trip, it’s hard for them to imagine where things are in a panic situation,” Karlovic notes. “We provide the emergency services with blueprints, so if [we] have an active shooter there, it enables them to grab the blueprints and look at where to send the police officers. It really allows them from a tactical standpoint to improve in a lot of different ways.”

Training days

Because of their complexity, training exercises at Cafaro malls take months to plan. The lockdown drills administered by the Mall of America are less elaborate, but the mall’s management is able to repeat them with greater frequency—about two times a month, according to Buegler. The drills take place five minutes after the mall opens or five minutes before it closes. Because of the mall’s size, they are sometimes done in stages on different days of the same week.

Prior to running its first drill, in November 2009, Mall of America’s security staff reached out to the mall’s 5,020 retail tenants to get better acquainted with the layouts of their stores and figure out where employees and visitors should take shelter in the event of an attack or a natural disaster.

The mall-owned amusement park and 14-screen movie theater were also included in the effort. Mall security and the Bloomington police department then created emergency plans for each individual store, which were put into booklets and distributed to tenants. The plans cover a range of scenarios, from adverse weather conditions to bomb threats to lost children.

Today, the mall’s security staff and management personnel make sure to reach out to all the tenants on a regular basis, to ensure that only authorized employees have access to the mall’s private areas and to train new hires in emergency preparedness. The Mall of America and its retail tenants together employ anywhere from 11,000 to 13,000 people.

“I think the biggest challenge we face continuously is just turnover,” says Buegler. “We are in a retail setting and the turnover is constant—not just with the front line staff, but even store management. So we make sure we make ourselves available to these new staff and we created a training video for the tenants. So when a new retailer or a new store manager comes in, we give them a video that tells them what a lockdown drill is, how it’s planned and how to do one.”

Hard numbers

Training exercises can be done inexpensively, while helping mall personnel and store employees get a better handle on property layouts and improving communications between mall security and local first responders. For property owners, most of the cost comes from producing safety manuals and mall blueprints and paying overtime to mall staff to participate in the exercises.

In many cases, local police departments can apply for grants from the DHS that finance training at public venues, says Richley. Cafaro often helps local police and fire departments to get grant approvals, vouching to the DHS that the money goes toward training exercises.

As a result, Cafaro pays for the extra working hours that the exercises demand from its staff while emergency responder services fund their participation with grant money.

Meanwhile, at the Mall of America, the cost to the owners has been limited to paper and printing materials for the booklets that Buegler and her staff distribute to mall tenants. Since the production was handled internally, the entire bill for the booklets has totaled less than $2,000.

“It’s really just time and having someone dedicated to keep the program moving,” Buegler says. “And Mall of America is always willing to help other managers out. We’d like to see this procedure practiced in every mall in the country. We are willing to help out with anything, even if you just have questions, or need a tour or materials.”