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Scenario exercise readies Hall responders for 'what if?'

POSTED: July 25, 2008 5:02 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Hall County Sheriff's deputies William Thompson, left, and Christy Van Scoten walk past volunteer victim Amanda McDaniell during a training exercise at North Hall Middle School Monday. As part of the practice exercise, the deputies were going from room to room securing the area before medical help was brought in.

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Fire alarms signal a dark disaster that is underscored by bodies lying in the middle of hallways and the smell of gunpowder. Sporadic screams and gunfire come from a nearby room in between the steady stomp of the alarms.

This chaos — a simulated school shooting — is an exercise in focus for Hall County’s emergency responders.

"In a situation like this, focus is something you’ve got to maintain. If you lose that, you’re not going to be effective," Lt. Stephen Carey said.

Going into a school, industrial site or a home with active gunmen inside is what Hall County’s first responders hope they never have to do, but they have to be ready for every aspect of such an event — from handling the

911 call to stopping the violence and assessing and treating victims — and together, the three agencies trained for such an event Monday at North Hall Middle School.

While two Hall County sheriff’s deputies posed as school shooters, other Hall County deputies practiced tactics for finding and taking down the gunmen.

Dispatchers prepared themselves for a situation where they would have to gather information from multiple callers and communicate it to the responders in one big emergency.

With the first shots fired from Airsoft guns, the school’s secretary Penny Kerns called 911. Calmly, she detailed to the dispatcher what she could hear and see from the school’s front office: there were gunshots, two people on the ground and somebody had yelled something about a bomb.

The pretend scenario prepared Kerns for one she has often feared might become a reality.

While she continues to speak with dispatchers, four Hall County sheriff’s deputies, protected with face masks, run in the school’s front door carrying Airsoft pistols and rifles that simulate their own Glock .40 caliber handguns and Colt M4 rifles. They pass the two victims in the foyer and move toward the gunshots.

"We try to make the training as realistic as possible," Maj. Jeff Strickland said.

That is their sole mission: find the gunshots and make them stop.

"It’s our mission to end the violence just as soon as we can," Lt. Joe Carter said. "We’ve got to go in, and dig (the shooters) out as soon as possible."

In Monday’s scenario, the deputies have a coach. Carter runs alongside them, reminding them to communicate with dispatchers often and critiquing their other tactical maneuvers.

"It is not a time to be nice," Carter says of the "constructive criticism" he gives the trainees.

He knows that one day, these same deputies could be in a real situation with their lives on the line. So even in the pretend world, they have got to get it right.

Emergency medical personnel wait outside for the deputies to declare safe zones. As soon as one area is cleared, medical personnel move in, under the protection of a sheriff’s deputy, assessing victims’ injuries and moving them out of the school — making sure not to get too close to the scene too soon.

Approaching a scene with screaming victims and fire alarms, not knowing which corner or room will reveal the shooter had its challenges for deputies Ana Smith, Jason Bailes and Carey, but it gave the trainees a better idea of what to expect in an active shooter situation.

"It’s intense — a lot of adrenaline going — it’s a challenge to stay focused," Carey said.

The tactics they practiced at North Hall Middle School Monday are some that became necessary for emergency personnel following the major shooting events at Columbine and Virginia Tech. Until then, police surrounded a building, and waited until a SWAT team mobilized.

But given the mentality of rampage shooters in schools, deputies now train to take the situation into their own hands, because they know the longer the shooter is inside, the higher the number of victims will be, Strickland said.

The tactics the agencies practiced Monday are some that emergency responders hope they will never have to use. But they know that in their line of work, you must train for the worst and only hope for the best, Strickland said.

"The reality of it is, you never know what kind of call you’re going to get when you come on duty," Strickland said.



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