When senior Jacob Fry first heard the gunshots and screams, he became frightened, even though he knew it was just an exercise.
“It felt very real, especially when all you can hear is intense screaming and tons of gunshots,” Fry said. “I was frightened — at some points it seemed like it wasn’t a simulation.”
Fry was one of over 600 participants who, at the guidance of the San Joaquin County Emergency Medical Services Agency, took part in a full-scale active shooter/hostile event exercise on Wed., Nov. 15 after students left campus for a minimum day.
The exercise gave police, hospitals and other emergency services the opportunity to train, prepare and experiment with methods on how to effectively deal with mass multi-casualties and how to safely and efficiently evacuate the victims of the event.
“The point is to get these [emergency] services to figure out how to treat a high influx of patients,” Shellie Lima said in a press release for the San Joaquin EMS Agency. “Hospitals and clinics are going to get overwhelmed. There’s a lot of artificialities. The actors are acting like they think they should, but they’ve never been in a situation like this before.”
Being prepared for these types of incidents is not only essential for law enforcement, but for school staff as well. Last week in northern California, Rancho Tehama Elementary School was attacked when 42-year-old Kevin Neal crashed his truck into the school and began shooting for 30 minutes. The staff was able to save students from the bullets by creating a barricade.
Each year, the statewide medical and health exercise tests a different emergency as part of the National Hospital Preparedness Program in order to receive federal grant funding. Last year, the hospitals had to deal with what to do with a power outage. Next year, different venues will deal with a massive anthrax outbreak.
Law enforcement and other emergency services rarely experience high-casualty events like a mass shooting. The exercise provided an opportunity to experience a possible scenario that could very likely occur in real life. Not only did the exercise help emergency services find methods that needed improvement, it also highlighted weaknesses in the school safety plan for administration to address.
“The scenario begins because a student lets in the shooter,” Principal Hillary Harrell said. “It’s easy for a shooter to get in, but it’s very difficult for law enforcement to get in.”
“We are working with our safety plan coordinator to identify areas we can improve to be better prepared for events like this,” Vice Principal Sera Baysinger said.
Previous studies have shown that law enforcement would focus on apprehending the shooter and leave patients on the ground untreated. The new strategy focuses on getting law enforcement and the fire department to work together as quickly as possible to save as many lives as possible.
In the active shooter drill, two shooters stormed the Bear Creek campus where about 50 patient actors and 50 volunteer witnesses re-enacted an active shooter scene. Some of these witnesses included three Bear Creek teachers from the agriculture department, 12 Bear Creek leadership students and students from Franklin and Chavez high school.
“I was outside the cafeteria in the open about 13 feet away from the ‘shooter,’” senior Rianna Garza Aguirre said. “When I heard the first shot I got scared and dashed to the cafeteria. I hid until the ‘shooter’ came in the cafeteria and ‘killed’ himself. The police then came in the cafeteria after us yelling ‘He is in here.’”
Law enforcement rushed to the scene with unloaded artillery to apprehend the suspects. They were quickly followed by fire trucks and ambulances to treat the wounded and to deliver them to medical facilities. Gunshots and screams for help could be heard from outside the school.
“The exercise evaluators took me on campus to show me the weaknesses in our school,” Baysinger said. “I saw dead and wounded bodies in the hallway. One person even said to me ‘I see you looking at me. Why aren’t you helping me?’”
“The biggest question I [still] have is what is the school personnel’s role supposed to be in [an active shooter] situation,” Harrell said. “I need some clarification on what law enforcement wants me to do.”
The exercise concluded within an hour and a half. After the simulation ended, there was a debriefing to document and analyze results and which areas need improvements.