Active Shooter Training – Preparing for the day that it could be for real.
Is your community prepared for the unexpected? Fire does not discriminate due to the size of the city and neither does the active shooter. It could be a larger school like in Littleton, Colorado where the population is just over 40,000, or it could be in Hayward, Wisconsin where the population is only 2,533. The most notable incident occurred at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed. Other high-profile attacks include an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut where a twenty-year-old man killed his grandmother and 27 people before dying by suicide. The Newtown shooting brought particular attention due to the age of the victims: twenty of those killed were six- and seven-year-old children.
With mass shootings on the rise in the United States, there is no doubt that communities need to be prepared in case tragedy hits close to home. It is better to be proactive instead of reactive. This is one of two reasons why Nate Duntson, Ambulance Service Administrator/ Emergency Government Director, and Darin Jenson from the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department developed this training together. Representatives from Sawyer County Ambulance, Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department, Hayward Police Department, Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Police Department, Wisconsin DNR Law Enforcement, Wisconsin State Patrol and Sawyer County SWAT Team, Birchwood Ambulance Service, North Memorial Health Air Care, Barns Ambulance, Sawyer County Public Health, and Hayward Area Memorial Hospital were all involved in the planning.
Sawyer County has never had a mass casualty training event of this size, so putting this together was a challenge for both men to undertake, especially when working with so many different agencies. Sawyer County Sheriff Doug Mrotek stated that “this was a major joint effort that has been in the making for a couple of years.” Mrotek also said, “[There were] other schools in the area that were not involved in the drill but were invited to attend as observers.” Mrotek said that they will be targeting next year as a time for an active shooter drill at the Winter High School, to continue their efforts in educating the local departments against such tragedies.
On Tuesday, August 9th, participants were invited to a tabletop exercise to go over the entire scenario to make sure nothing was missed in the planning. The goal for this training was for it to be as realistic as possible to best simulate an actual event. This was achieved by replicating the shooting at Columbine High School using real examples of victims and their injuries as well as placing spent cartridges on the floor. There was a card by each victim with a name written on it along with the type of injury each victim had. The mock incident involved the scenario of many injured students, several student deaths, and one teacher death.
School instructors and staff members from the Hayward High School volunteered to be the victims of the shooter during the exercise. Many teachers and faculty members from the local schools were able to be present for this training because it was conducted prior to the school year. Students from Hayward High School’s Crisis Team were able to observe this training as well. In addition to the school attendees, Memorial Hospital had 48 employees participate in the event, according to Hospital Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Mark Manning. This exercise helped a wide variety of people from the community to train for an active shooter. This training involved triaging the injured students and moving them to a treatment area before being transported to an area hospital.
On the morning of August 16th, at 0937 hours, students and staff heard the sound of gunshots in the hallways of Hayward High School. Principal Dan VanderVelden announced over the intercom, “this is a Code Red, Code Red. There is an active shooter in the building. 911 is being called.” The building was locked down as part of the ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Confront Evacuate) protocol. The 911 call to the dispatch center reported that gunshots had been fired in the school and that there were injuries. Dispatchers at Sawyer County were able to log into the school camera system to view the multiple camera feeds throughout the high school to help monitor the situation inside. Within minutes, the Hayward Police Department, Hayward Fire Department, Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department, and the Sawyer County Ambulance Service were dispatched to the location. While enroute, all responders were notified that there was an active shooter inside the school with multiple injuries and possible fatalities.
Hayward Police Chief Joel Clapero, Emergency Government Director/Ambulance Director Nate Duntson and Sheriff Doug Mrotek were also immediately notified. These key players went into action by calling in extra staff, notifying other area agencies for mutual aid assistance, and setting up a Unified Command at the Dispatch Center in the City of Hayward. The Incident Command was assigned to Fire Chief Mike Herrman because of his knowledge in this type of command structure.
Within minutes of the dispatch, many law enforcement officers from the Sheriff’s Department, Hayward Police Department, and LCO Police Department began to arrive on scene along with Sawyer County Ambulances. The area SWAT Team Members were also deployed and arrived just a few minutes later. Students and teachers streamed from the building and were found in the hallway with their hands held high. Once students and staff were cleared, they were directed to go to Grace Lutheran Church, the designated evacuation center located just across the street.
Law Enforcement officers entering the school attempting to neutralize the threat immediately were confronted with frightened students holding their hands up. They escorted those students outside to a safe area. Officers were unaware if there was only one or possibly multiple shooters in the building. Law enforcement eventually located one perpetrator and had to use force to stop the threat. They were then able to secure the area. Finally, EMS was allowed to enter into the warm zone with officers and deputies in order to access and remove the shooter’s victims.
After a short break, a second scenario was conducted. The second scenario simulated a school dance where an upset student pulled another student into a dark hallway and then went back into the dance firing shots and then running away to hide. This second scenario was important in that it provided more training to EMTs and law enforcement officers who typically work during nighttime hours.
Nate stated that he and Darin made this training extremely tough on purpose, stating, “We wanted to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our people.” The event started at 9:37 a.m. when we only had one dispatcher on duty. We did this on a Tuesday when our county court would be in session. We did as many things as possible to make it a little more difficult for everyone. Challenges sometimes offer the best opportunities for growth and preparedness.
After each scenario, a debriefing was held to identify strengths and weaknesses in the response. One problem identified was radio communications within the building. This was a challenge, and a strong reminder for responders to use a non-repeated, talk-around channel when trying to communicate via radio from inside a building. Another area identified for improvement and additional training was the implementation and use of the Incident Command System.
Several EMT’s that I spoke with said it was an interesting training with many takeaways. It was chaotic, intense and stressful. Some were confused as to which door should have been used to have the students exit the building. Most participants experienced radio problems while trying to communicate out of the building. Nate Duntson reported that accountability was a problem. Who went where? What hospital did the patient(s) go to? He knew that families would be asking and asserted that they must have a system to know where people are taken. Accountability is an important part of managing a mass casualty incident, and we will be working to improve upon this process. Nate also posed three important questions at the debrief: what do we need to do to get better, what are our capabilities today, and how are we going to manage it today?
Another important lesson learned was about how important the tabletop exercise was because many staff members did not attend and ended up asking questions about what they were supposed to do just before the training began. If they had participated in the tabletop, they would have been better prepared and would have known what to expect. In the real world, we know that we can’t possibly ‘tabletop’ every situation, but opportunities like this training do help staff prepare, answer questions, and assign responsibilities before the ‘real thing’ happens.
Overall, the training was priceless. It was some of the best training that we have ever had in Sawyer County. Nate and Darin deserve to be commended for all the hours of challenging work that they put into the planning and organizing of this training. I have always said to my EMS students that I have taught over the years; if you do not measure it you cannot improve on it. Also, remember when you arrive on scene for a call of this magnitude SLOW DOWN, AND YOU WILL SPEED UP.