power meeting from aboveWhen the police, FBI and the media have finished probing the tragedy at Century movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., insurance companies will take over.

The big insurers and brokers have risk-assessment units dedicated to preventing this from happening. But somehow it did.

The insurers I called didn't want to talk about it. First, it's bad publicity to be connected to this kind of crime. Second, risk assessment teams don't want to give anyone a roadmap on how to do it. But what I learned in off-the record conversations -- and how insurers handled these risks in the past -- gave me insights into how they will evaluate this "lone gunman" threat in the future. And how people in a crowded public building should be protected.

Ramping up for terrorism

In happier times, insurance risk assessors spent their time checking fire alarms, sprinkler systems and forklifts. But Sept. 11, 2001, was a wake-up call for the industry, which now dedicates massive talent and computer time to defeating terrorism. The catastrophe-modeling firm AIR Worldwide, for example, has a counter terrorism team with operational and analytical expertise drawn from former FBI, CIA and Department of Defense personnel. Three major insurance brokers, Aon, Aon and Willis, all have staffs dedicated to terrorism risks.

That's fortunate, because the tools used by alleged mass killers like James Holmes are identical to those of terrorists: diversion, disguise and density. His booby- trapped apartment was meant to divert police from his real target. He used his disguise as the Joker character from Batman as well as smoke bombs to obscure who he was and what he was doing. And his choice of a sold-out premier gave him population density -- or what terrorism experts call "a trophy target" -- that was designed to maximize casualties.

'Hardening' targets

I'm happy to see that many foreign terrorists can be tracked and taken down effectively. But insurers, along with police and other security forces, now have to confront the nightmare of a domestic mass murderer with a grudge and virtual unlimited weaponry in a society with millions of public places.

These spaces, open to everyone, require emergency exits of the kind used by Holmes to allegedly leave and arm himself and then come back in. Movie theaters can be especially difficult to control because they are dark, enclosed and, depending on the movie, the audience expects to hear explosions and gunshots.

Insurers tell me that people can be also protected in enclosed, crowded spaces. It's already happening at political rallies, concerts and casinos by a process known as "hardening" targets. Some of the countermeasures are obvious, such as metal detectors or refusing admittance to anyone in a disguise which hides facial features.

But other forms of protection need to be installed quickly if commercial establishments want to remain insured. These include security cameras at all exits. If they had been in place and monitored, they would have shown Holmes parking his car right outside the emergency exit. Silent alarms would have indicated that a door had been wedged open. And security guards would have patrolled inside and out, as well as sitting at a monitoring console where they could have been trained to look for people who pace aimlessly or otherwise act suspiciously.

A very dark place

But we have to remember that as our technology gets smarter, so do the killers. Some will simply be copycats, and likely get caught. Others, such as Holmes, have probably spent years playing computer strategy games, living lonely innocuous lives, and planning their single moment of mayhem. They are hard to spot, and even harder to outwit.

Risk assessors admit that this puts them, along with profilers and anti-terrorist police, in a very dark place - inside the minds of potential killers -- and keeps them up at night wondering if, when and where he will strike.

And the perpetrator usually has the advantage. As the chief underwriting officer of one insurer told me: "Each day is a waiting game."