By Bryan Wroten Hotel News Now
June 23, 2023
Hoteliers Have Duty of Care To Protect Guests
Hotel security experts say U.S. hoteliers need plans and training in place to better protect their employees and guests from active shooters. (Getty Images)
Hoteliers need to better prepare their U.S. properties against the threat of gun violence, according to industry security consultants.
It’s not a topic people are excited to talk about, said Sal Caccavale, principal at Global Hospitality Security Solutions.
“It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances, but we have to look the devil in the eyes, so to speak, and be prepared,” he said.
Duty of Care
The hotel industry has a reasonable duty of care to protect their employees and their guests, Caccavale said. That includes creating crisis plans and active attack plans, and then educating and training employees on them. They need to know how to respond to any kind of gun violence, including mass shootings, and know how to defend themselves and take care of the guests and visitors in their hotels.
The average response time for police departments is longer than most active attack events, and that’s just for a first responder to arrive as opposed to specialized law enforcement units, he said. Depending on the area, that response could take up to 30 minutes.
“You own that time frame in between when the active attack begins and when law enforcement comes to the rescue,” he said. “So, during that time, what are we doing?”
Since the 19th century, innkeepers have been held accountable in court by this legal standard because when a guest checks into a hotel, they’re trusting the innkeeper with their life, said Brad Bonnell, principal at Hotel Security Group. More is required of a hotel operator than of a retail store operator.
Hoteliers have a duty to conduct a risk assessment of their properties to identify and mitigate any reasonably anticipated or predictable threat, Bonnell said. That’s how they will be measured in a courtroom.
“Did you assess the risks?” he said. “Did you identify those risks and then use that intelligence to develop the policies and procedures that will help you provide an appropriate and proportionate level of mitigation against those risks?”
Courts have generally recognized that hotels aren’t responsible for the criminal acts of a third party unless the plaintiff can demonstrate a path to duty, Bonnell said. That path will be defined by prior, recent and similar events at or near a location. All it takes is a Google search to find incidents of gun violence in or near hotels to say that the owner/operator should have known.
“The bottom line is every hotel operator in this country has a duty to develop an emergency response plan in anticipation of a dynamic shooter scenario,” he said.
Make a Plan, Train on It
Hotels drill at least twice a year for fires, but they don’t drill frequently on how to respond to a dynamic shooter, Caccavale said. Students in schools practice these drills throughout the year, but once they get into the work environment, it usually stops.
Local law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security can help businesses develop their plans, practice their plans and provide guidance during their drills, he said. Getting to know local police and fire departments will create a useful relationship.
“You don’t want to meet these people during an emergency situation,” Caccavale said. “You’ll want to meet them when the environment is right for you and for them to sit down and get to know each other and to perhaps tour your property.”
A single building with five floors will have a different risk profile than a 750-room resort property that has several different buildings, Bonnell said. Hoteliers need to recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
The most critical component of an emergency response plan is early warning, he said. Once it has been determined there’s a crisis situation with a dynamic shooter, someone on duty at the hotel must be designated as the person to call 911. That person must stay on the phone with the dispatcher until they are told to hang up so they can provide additional information as the situation progresses.
The plan also has to define when threats reach the threshold of needing to call 911, he said. That gives employees guidance on when to call for law enforcement on their own, as there will be times when the general manager isn’t at work.
“They need to be told, ‘The minute you receive this sort of [threat] report you call 911. Stay on the line,’” he said.
Employees need to know someone has to meet the first responders to give them updated information and give them a rooming list so they know what rooms are occupied in case evacuation is necessary, he said. The plan has to decide how it’s going to communicate with guests in that situation and who is responsible for the guests after the evacuation.
Even with a plan in place, companies need to implement the training to back it up, Caccavale said. There’s often a disconnect between the corporate office and the on-property employees.
“They’re not getting trained to the degree that they should be,” he said.
The overarching principle is to provide early warning, Bonnell said. Not every hotel has the capability to reach every guest through mass texting or through an intercom system, but hotels still have a duty to provide some level of early warning. That warning is dependent upon their capabilities.
“There’s no right or wrong plan,” he said. “It’s the absence of a plan — it’s negligence when you have nothing in place.”
One way to reach guests would be to use the fire alarm system, Caccavale said. If there’s no other speaker system available, hoteliers could use the “all call” capability through the building’s fire alarm speaker system.
Employees could use this system to communicate with guests in the building to warn guests and even provide instructions, such as to shelter in place, he said.
If there’s a dynamic shooter near a hotel, hoteliers still have a duty of care to their guests, Caccavale said. There was a shooting in Atlanta during which a hotelier client called Caccavale, who advised the general manager to lock the doors and keep employees and guests secure in the hotel and warn them against going outside while the shooter was still in the area. He also warned against letting people in the building because they might be the shooter.
When the shooter fled to Marietta, Georgia, Caccavale warned his other clients in the area about the situation and told them to secure their buildings.
Even with knowledge of an active shooter in the area, if a guest wants to leave the secured property, he said the hotel can’t stop the guest from leaving.
“We’ve given them the reasonable duty of care by strongly warning them and urging them not to go out of the building until we get word from local law enforcement, but certainly we can’t hold them back either,” he said.