Shooter exercise tests local forces

IRON RIVER—Too many people will tell you that “It can’t happen here.” Sadly, “active shooter” situations happen all over the United States, with alarming frequency.
    All you need is one unbalanced, disgruntled person with a hate on and easy access to firearms. What happens if he goes off one day and heads to a school?
    That was the focus of an exercise held Oct. 1 at West Iron County High School. It was staged and took place during an in-service day for teachers—no students were around.
    What if? Our local law enforcement personnel would be the first responders if something ever happens, and this was the day they got to practice what they have been taught. It was also held for school, emergency medical and hospital emergency room personnel—to see how they would handle the unthinkable horror that “can’t happen here.”
    Imagine you are sitting in the high school lunch room when the air is split by a deafening blast of gunfire, rebounding off the walls and floors. “Intruder! Intruder!” came over the PA system. “Lock down! Lock down!”
    Then more shots. Some people in the cafeteria instantly disappeared behind some folded lunch tables. One person got hit, but the gunman went elsewhere, and then more gunfire. Screaming in the halls. Quiet, then more distant gunfire.
    Within three minutes, the first group of officers arrived at the scene and went down the hallways in a group, brandishing orange rubber “pistols” and searching for the gunman. As they did so, observers (all wearing bright vests) watched, took notes and kept out of the way.
    A second group arrived 90 seconds later and went down the hall. A minute or two later, one group came up the steps and back to the main hallway.
    About seven minutes after the first shot, radio traffic indi-
cated someone was in custody, and the suspect was eventually led away in handcuffs. As hallways were searched and declared clear, tension eased a little, and the focus turned increasingly to the “injured,” as emergency medical crews cautiously moved in to care for the “wounded” lying in the halls.
    Sheriff Mark Valesano explained later that the exercise had been planned after a series of meetings among himself, Lt. Paul Campbell from the State Police post in Iron Mountain and Jessica Perry of the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department.
    Early this year, Perry elaborated, “We held several planning meetings with local partners to come up with what each agency needed to do.”  In May, they did a “tabletop” exercise, “which is to just talk through what we would do in a full-scale event.”
    Last week was the full-scale event. Who knows who will be first to the scene? Three teams of officers—chosen randomly from local police forces, State Police, Sheriff’s deputies and even DNR officers—responded to the alarm, entering the school on a staggered basis.
    “We wanted to mix staff,” Valesano explained, “because that’s how it’s going to be if something like this were to happen.”
    “It’s going to be a mix-match of people responding,” added Campbell. “It’s going to be whoever’s there—everybody’s going to be all hands on deck.”  
    While they knew about the exercise in advance, officers entering the school had no idea how many suspects or victims there were. “They had to figure it out as things went along,” Valesano said.
    The officers did an initial sweep and then started a room-by-room search. “We only did a small portion of the building,” Campbell said. “Had we done that entire building, it would have taken quite a bit of time.”
    Meanwhile, school personnel rehearsed their lockdown procedure and what they would do. EMS workers and hospital emergency room staff were tested by a mass casualty incident, and the Health Department worked how they would reunite students with their families.
    “Because we are right across from the school,” the Health Department’s Perry said, “we would lock down as well, and we could be a site for an emergency operation center.” Eventually, the state crime lab would take over the investigation.
    In a real incident, an incident command would also be set up, to manage the personnel and resources responding from outside of the area and to deploy them as needed.
    When an emergency like this takes place, Valesano said, communications is a big challenge. Last week, dispatchers got overwhelmed at times. “But that’s what you’re looking for,” the sheriff continued. “You’re not looking to do everything just right—you’re looking to see where your deficiencies are and what you can do to correct them.”
    Campbell said he felt the entire event went well—including law enforcement, which was focused on taking care of the threat and managing resources, along with the fire departments, EMTs and hospital. “Each group had objectives.”
    “Everybody communicated well,” Perry said. “Great coordination. We were talking on radios and cell phones. The different agencies worked well together coming into the school.
    “There are a few little things we need to work out, but we do plan on doing another exercise at Forest Park next year.”  
    “I think it was a very worthwhile exercise,” Valesano said. “We’re preparing for the unthinkable, and we want to be as prepared as we can for a day that we hope will never come.”