Summit County conducts mass casualty simulation in middle school
Several officers waited patiently inside Summit Middle School, the sound of their radios echoing through the hallway. One, bearing a rifle, stood just outside the entrance. The “pop” of a blank shot and the clank of a shell to the ground marked the start of the simulation.
Several more blanks echoed throughout the building, just seconds before a group of officers barged through the front door, carrying brightly colored fake firearms. Infiltrating the darkened corridors, the cops pursued the source of the sound, as part of the county’s annual emergency exercise.
“We’re trying to create the realism for this split-moment decision making,” said Summit County emergency management director Joel Cochran. “We’re wanting to give people the opportunity to practice that. It’s a lot of moving parts.”
This year’s simulation was centered on preparing for a mass-casualty incident, such as an active shooter at a school. Evaluators observing the scene took careful notes on officer communication, response and the ability to multi-task between pursuing a criminal and tending to the injured.
“We’re bringing people from all over the county to do this,” Don Koogle, disaster management coordinator for the Summit County Ambulance Service. “We all try to make it a combined effort.”
He said paramedics’ objectives for the simulation were to communicate with law enforcement officers to see if an area is secure, as well as with each other regarding patient status. Triage was a key component of the exercise, as well as coordination of medical services with limited hospital space in the county.
For Wednesday afternoon’s simulation, a moulage artist used fake blood to help render volunteers’ acting more realistic. The actors were scattered throughout the building, given various scripts along with a trail of bullet casings, leading to a mannequin that represented the downed culprit.
“The thinking is that you can’t wait any longer until you stabilize the scene because the people who were shot have limited amount of time,” Cochran added. “You look at ways to extract people from scene.”
An evolving approach
Cochran said that in the wake of tragedies, such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, the approach by law enforcement, school officials and medics has shifted significantly. This year’s exercise was intended to reflect these changes and make sure officers are up to speed.
“Columbine nationally changed the response,” Cochran said. “This exercise kind of embodies all of the changes in those theories.”
Current strategies encourage police to enter a scene and engage the criminal as quickly as possible. Medics may enter “warm zones,” which are not entirely safe but where bullets are not currently flying, to evacuate the injured. Before, Cochran said the general approach by police was to create a perimeter outside the school and bring in a SWAT team to negotiate with the shooters.
“History shows that’s not what these shooters are about. It’s about the violence they can inflict in a short amount of time,” Cochran said. “It’s really sad that it takes tragedy to learn the gaps in your system.”
A national initiative, called “move, secure, defend,” was incorporated into Summit and several other schools’ lockdown procedures during the past year. Travis Avery, emergency response coordinator for Summit School District, said the new approach forces faculty to make more decisions based on situational knowledge.
“Unfortunately, every teacher would have to make a choice based on their circumstances,” Avery said. “Before, it was kind of lockdown; hide in the corner, and hope it doesn’t come your way.”
With 30 school faculty and administration members participating in the simulation, Avery helped stage the scene for different types of situations. Some faculty would be secured in classrooms, while others, in the hallway, would have to decide whether to exit the building.
The concept of “move, secure, defend,” emphasizes activity on the part of the faculty: whether moving to a safer location, securing a classroom or other segment of the building in addition to actively defending teachers and students should they engage with a criminal. But, Avery said moving to lock down or secure a classroom is often the most useful tactic, with only one instance where a locked classroom has been breached.
In these instances, where communication may be down, staff members often are forced to make their own decisions.
“We talk a lot about operating within a vacuum of information,” Avery said. “All you might know is we’ve gone into lockdown as you close the door. You use your senses. Can you figure anything out?”
While school faculty train for emergency situations on a monthly basis, the rapid pace of the simulation adds a completely different factor.
Summit County has conducted annual, large-scale emergency exercises for 15 years, with mock situations including wildfires, ski-lift accidents and a variety of others. The county last addressed school violence with a simulation at Summit High School in 2009.
“Most or all of our exercises have always been a school component to practice interaction with other agencies. This time they’re the focus,” Cochran said.
Each exercise follows guidelines by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Several other counties host the exercises, but Summit is unique in its small size, allowing all branches of the county to get involved.
“These kinds of big simulations are occurring at different levels across the nation; I’m just trying to have our county do our part,” he added.
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