By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When a suicidal gunman entered a New Jersey mall on Monday night and opened fire, store manager Daisy Rodriguez locked the doors and hid in the back of her shop, nothing guiding her but instinct.
"I was panicked. I was scared. I was just shaking," said Rodriguez, 21, a manager at Soma Intimates in the Westfield Garden State Plaza Mall in Paramus. "They never trained us."
The 20-year old gunman fired six shots before retreating to a basement to kill himself. No one else was hurt, but the incident renewed attention on security at shopping malls ahead of the holiday season.
With just three weeks to go before the busiest U.S. shopping day of the year - the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday -- government security officials are ramping up efforts to better protect the nation's approximately 109,500 malls and shopping centers.
"There has been a significant outreach to major retail outlets and other so-called soft targets to improve security," said a Department of Homeland Security official, who was not authorized to discuss the outreach and requested anonymity.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has spent billions to improve security at federal buildings, airports and other potential targets.
Then, in 2007, when a teen gunman with an AK-47 assault rifle killed nine people, including himself, in an Omaha, Nebraska, shopping mall, attention turned to security at so-called soft targets - places where civilians gather without intensive security. Active shooter incidents at such places have tripled since 2010, law enforcement authorities say.
Last December, a gunman entered a shopping center outside of Portland, Oregon, and opened fire on shoppers, killing two before killing himself.
Overseas, the threat was dramatically emphasized in September, when gunmen entered a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and opened fire on shoppers. A hostage crisis ensued and when the smoke cleared, 72 were dead.
New Jersey mall store manager Rodriguez told Reuters that during five years on the job she has never received workplace violence training -- only fire drills.
"They need to basically train everyone who works here on the safest exit, the safest thing to do if this happens again," she said.
Westfield Group general manager Bryan Gaus said all of Westfield's 47 U.S. malls undergo emergency drills every year and that retailers are offered a chance to participate in drills, which a spokesperson declined to specify. A Soma Intimates spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.
In recent weeks, federal law enforcement agencies have been quietly urging private mall security firms to strengthen and reinforce security measures, including lock-down drills and employee crisis training, according to one federal law enforcement source.
Each of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's 56 field offices around the nation is meeting local police and security personnel at area malls and shopping this month, said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
Retailers say the measures include putting plainclothes security staff in uniform and malls paying municipal police salaries during the holidays.
"You want to have a very visible presence to act as a deterrent," said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council on Shopping Centers.
Later this month in Sacramento, California, DHS officials will hold expanded security exercises with all the area malls and shopping centers to reinforce training for active shooter and other emergencies, said Steve Reed, head of security at the 77-acre Arden Fair Mall.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder raised an alarm last month at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia by saying active shooter incidents have increased 150 percent over the past four years.
Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. experienced an average of about five "active shooter" incidents a year, but starting in 2009, that figure has tripled, Holder said.
"It's become clear that new strategies - and aggressive national response protocols - must be employed to stop shooters in their tracks," Holder told the conference.
Training store merchants in what to do in a crisis is a vital part of such a protocol, said Dan Murphy, a former police officer who helped develop security protocols for Minnesota's Mall of America, one of the nation's largest shopping centers.
"In a state of panic, everything changes," Murphy said. "If you do not practice for a crisis, how you're going to react is unpredictable."
(Reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Bob Burgdorfer)