Planning for Disaster
By Nancy Gutierrez
At 10:01 a.m. on Oct. 15 a single gunshot echoed through the corridors of Wilson Middle School.
It was followed by screams and more gun shots. The scene that unfolded was reminiscent of school shootings that occurred in Columbine High School in Colorado, Westside Middle School in Arkansas and Santana High School in California.
And that was exactly the point.
The similarities were planned as part of a mock disaster occurring at Wilson. The gunshots were blanks and the screams came from Exeter Union High School drama students.
The mock disaster that occurred at Wilson last Friday was simulated by Exeter law enforcement, fire, ambulance and school district officials as a drill to prepare for similar situations. Each agency has individual procedures in place for dealing with a critical incident. The purpose of the drill was to determine how all of the individual responsibilities and procedures interact during a crisis.
The response from emergency agencies was unscripted and as realistic as possible.
An unknown masked shooter entered campus through the main entrance. Students with multiple gunshot wounds bled corn syrup or some other fake red substance and created a path of destruction heading north from the Wilson office to a hallway of classrooms that is known by middle schoolers as the eighth grade wing.
The smell of gunpowder hung in the air as the gunman shot his two pistols at the CHP helicopter that circled above. He paced back and forth yelling at his victims, and continually reloading his gun.
Classrooms were locked down and inside students lay beneath desks and shielded themselves from the window.
When officers arrived on the scene their role initially was to contact and take out the shooter. A cluster of four officers stepped over victims, guns drawn, watching and listening for the shooter. As they rounded the corner to where the gunman stood, three officers fired on the suspect while one kept watch from behind, insuring that they could not be surprised by a second assailant. Officers then checked classrooms nearest to the scene for any other shooters or victims.
As they did this the injured students called to officers for help, but procedure kept them from tending to victims before securing the area.
Emergency medical technicians from Exeter Ambulance were next to be admitted to the scene. A triage leader inspected each of the injured and tagged victims with a card that indicated the severity of their injuries. Students with non-fatal injuries were moved to a separate location. The critically wounded were taken out on stretchers and transported to the old Exeter Hospital. One teacher with simulated near-fatal wounds was transported by the med-evac helicopter to the hospital.
The entire scenario was observed by Exeter school-site principals, the superintendent, deputy superintendent, administrators, school board members, Visalia police officials, the Visalia Unified School District superintendent and emergency response officials. An active shooter on campus is an incident that has occurred in schools in California and is now a scenario that all districts prepare for as part of their emergency procedures. There is more collaboration by school and city agencies in an incident like this than, for example, when a fire occurs at school. School board members felt it necessary to practice this kind of emergency to address weaknesses.
"That's why we do this," Lt Cliff Bush said, "to look for weaknesses. We don't expect it to go perfectly."
Bush said a problem was found prior to the drill during the planning stage.
"We realized we couldn't communicate directly with schools," Bush said.
The school district office can communicate with school sites, and school sites have communication devises for administrators. But there was no direct line between the school and police department. Bush said the police department now has two school radios. One stays with the dispatch and one is carried by the patrolling day shift unit.
Exeter Union School District board member Mike McGee said that this type of drill is important because in situations like an active shooter there is no perfect scenario.
"There are things that we can do better as a district," he said. "This is a way to learn. It was done realistically, because in life it takes time to get all the resources together."
McGee is referring to the time it took for officers to enter campus and contact the shooter. Bush said there is typically limited staff and the first officer on the scene must wait for additional units before entering the area.
"One officer can't just rush in because he becomes part of the problem," Bush said. "He'll call for additional units, emergency personnel and coordinate with the CHP and check to see if a helicopter is available."
As the CHP helicopter circled over-head, pilots tracked the shooter's movement and provided a body count for officers.
"It's an excellent tool to have," Bush said.
The drill is also a learning opportunity for school sites. Emergency procedures are defined in school manuals and vary according to the situation. When an emergency calls for a lock-down of classrooms, teachers use communication devises in their rooms to provide a count of students in their classes to a central communication center (CCC) located on site. They must also alert the CCC if a student is missing or if there is an extra student in their class. Teachers are trained to provide signals that only police officers and school administrators can read.
Superintendent Renee Whitson said classes stay locked down until they hear a bell signal.
"What's most important is the lockdown response time," Whitson said. "It is critical to child and staff safety."
Whitson also said that the drill is not just training for the school but for the community as well.
"It is important for parents to stay out of the area," she said. "They are to report to the school's evacuation area, which for Wilson is the Exeter Church of God."
Each of the schools has a separate evacuation area. The evacuation area for Lincoln Elementary is the Exeter Boys and Girls Club. At Rocky Hill, children are evacuated to the Exeter Memorial Building or the Church of Latter Day Saints. At EUHS, the evacuation site is the football stadium or Exeter Memorial Building and at Kaweah, students are evacuated to the Exeter Memorial Building. The evacuation site will have contact with the school site and information for parents.
"This is the perfect opportunity for training," Whitson said. "If we don't have the opportunity to do this training we won't be able to find out the glitches."
A debriefing on the drill was held Monday, Oct. 18, after press-time, however Bush said he thought the drill was beneficial.
"Overall it went well," he said. "There are things we will talk about and tactical things that the police department can improve on. But we didn't expect it to go perfectly."
Bush said no scenario is black and white and procedures will always need modifications.
"Sometimes you have to skip a step, then go back and improvise," he said.