BY KEVIN KUPIETZ
“It can’t happen here, it wouldn’t happen here-it only happens in big places.” How many times have you heard similar lines in discussing preparedness for school shooting incidents? Similar comments were probably made in communities that are now all too well known for such tragedies, such as Springfield, Oregon; Littleton, Colorado; and, most recently, Red Lake, Minnesota. These tragedies have brought home to Americans how vulnerable their children are in school. Unfortunately, the list of school violence history is pretty long; and, as we know about history, it repeats itself, so we must be prepared.
We like to think that our schools are safe havens for our children, but that is not always the case. Hence, we responders must be ready to go protect and save our children (our future), but how do we do that? There are many different ideas on how to do that, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses. Local emergency response departments must work together to decide what will work best for them in addressing these incidents. Ideas may range from a surround-and-wait policy to an aggressive plan to neutralize the shooters to any combination in between. Whatever the action plan decided on, we need to communicate it, practice it, and then revise it as needed so that it works as efficiently and effectively as possible. We hope the day never comes when we have to actually use it, but we will be ready nevertheless.
In our area, we have developed some response plans we have practiced in a series of drills. Realism is one of the most important lessons we learned from this experience. For trainers, the law of intensity does work; the more realistic the drill is, the more participants will remember the lessons later.
The earlier that you start planning, the better. Most people do not understand the time and effort that go into creating and executing a drill. For large-scale county drills, we started planning about a year before. In one of our counties, the emergency manager has set aside at least one weekend every year for a major-scale drill; as we finish one drill, we are already planning the next year’s drill. This really reduces the pressure of making things happen at the last minute.
Participants. When planning your drill, involve as many response agencies and other organizations (e.g., fire, EMS, police, public works, schools, and hospitals) that would respond to an actual incident as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask any group to get involved because you don’t think they will participate. You will be surprised at how many people take part in these drills and how many more who would like to that we might otherwise overlook.
Scenarios. In planning, decide what your goals are and what you want to see happen at this drill. What training scenarios do you want or need to drill on? What local personnel and equipment resources are available, and how can they be integrated into the drill? For example, one county obtained a bomb-sniffing dog through a federal grant, so the planning group wanted to use that particular resource.
Our local hospitals provide us with the likely number of patients and the types and severity of injuries they would expect to address in such an incident. Different response agencies tell us what scenarios they would want to use to train their departments-e.g., a mass decon or rescuing a downed responder.
Involvement. Ensure that you include enough tasks for participants to perform so that your incident command system will have to prioritize. There should be enough activities to involve all responders, but not so many that they are set up for failure, especially if this is their first time taking part in such a drill. We perform our major tasks or drill actions but hold a couple in reserve in case we need more action at the drill. If crews that come out to participate are left in staging, waiting but never receiving an assignment during the drill, chances are they will not participate in future drills. If there are groups still in staging without a task, you can assign them to find a panicked student seen running through the woods or any other small task so they are involved.
Evaluators. Involve evaluators or drill monitors early in the planning phase. By assigning responsibilities early in the drill, the planning workload is spread out among a number of people, thus increasing creativity and minimizing the stress on any one person.
Funding. In the early stages, also consider the B word-budget. How much money will be available for the drill? Although these drills can be done on a shoestring, more money means more drill options. The Department of Homeland Security looks favorably on multiagency drills, so it may be possible to obtain money through its grants or other sources. With some legwork, you may be able to obtain donations ranging from food for drill participants to automobiles for fire or extrication exercises. Local funding sources include departments, agencies, or even your local emergency planning committee (LEPC).
The actual day of the drill may seem hectic, but don’t worry too much about the things that went wrong in the drill’s implementation. Things may go wrong, but if your drill staff doesn’t point it out, most of the participants won’t even notice it, and things will run smoothly. As with everything else we do in emergency response, we should have multiple backup plans. For example, if one of your victims doesn’t show up, you go right into plan B: substitute a manikin, or plan C: use one of your drill monitors temporarily, or plan D-you get the idea.
We found setting up a drill staging area within a few blocks of the actual drill site is very valuable. It puts all participants in the same location for one final safety briefing and inspection prior to the start of the drill. For example, we have three independent checks of all firearms and then mark them with blue tape in staging, signifying they have no ammunition and thus are safe for training.
The proximity of the drill staging area puts responders close to the scene of the drill, which reduces the possibility of responders getting into an accident en route to the drill site. The staging area allows us to complete any necessary class or training paperwork to document the event. At the staging area, responders can meet and talk prior to the drill.
The drill should have one or two drill coordinators; we use two, since we have found that radio communications are not very reliable inside these large school structures. We position each one in different sections of the incident site so they are accessible by radio at all times. The drill coordinators keep the drill going in the desired direction on schedule and keep their eyes on the big picture. It is important that we have one overall vision for the drill as it is being executed so the participants don’t receive conflicting reports from individual drill monitors. Ensure that all drill monitors and evaluators know exactly what is expected of them, their areas of responsibility, and the overall drill goals. If they do have to ad lib a response to an unexpected situation, they can guide the participants correctly. Portable radios and cellphones for monitors are very useful for coordinating the exercises. For coordination, it is important to have a timetable and stick to it as closely as possible, especially with start and stop times. If providing food for participants, ensure that the cooks or caterers understand your timetable so there is little delay between the stop time and the meal time. We have found that we are able to keep more people present and interested during the post-drill critique if we feed them. Through good coordination, we can also help to ensure that we provide enough tasks for everyone to participate without overworking anyone into an unsafe condition.
Finally, in coordination we have to be flexible; there are so many variables to factor in to obtain our desired final result.
We recruit our drill “victims” from a number of sources. Drama students perform really well because they are not afraid to yell, scream, and holler, which adds to the confusion of our rescuers. Health care students are also a good choice, since they understand some of the injuries that we assign them; with this knowledge, they can better describe signs and symptoms to the EMS and hospital staff treating them. Other victim candidates include nursing and EMS students. We try to make it a fun experience for our victims so that they will want to take part in a future drill.
We have become very experienced in using moulage to simulate victim injuries, which also enhances the drill’s authenticity. In one drill, we sent a victim to the hospital by private vehicle, and the emergency room staff initially thought that person was an actual gunshot victim until the drill monitor intervened. However, applying the moulage is very time-consuming; it has to be planned in advance to keep the drill on schedule and keep the makeup from getting too old and breaking down.
1) An EMS crew works on a moulaged victim at a school shooting drill in Northampton County, North Carolina, as a drill monitor observes from a distance. Realism is a key component to a successful drill. (Photos by author.)
Each victim receives an index card outlining his injuries and the actions he must perform to keep the drill moving in a more “predictable” format for the drill evaluators (photo 1).
Using sophisticated training manikins is ideal for these drills since you can simulate critically injured patients for your EMS and hospital staff. These responders can actually fully treat the patient, from taking vital signs to performing advanced airway and cardiac procedures. With the newer manikins, you can actually manipulate them out of the way of the rescuers with a wireless remote or even run entire scenarios automatically with a laptop.
In using one of these manikins, we found that it is best to assign at least one knowledgeable paramedic instructor to run the manikin throughout the entire drill. You can even recycle your manikin throughout the drill as a different patient with different injuries if needed.
Props also help to make these drills as realistic as possible. Inside the school or other structure, we use smoke machines to simulate minor fire situations. This allows us to observe how the teams set their incident priorities, whether they search the area and isolate it (photo 2).
Normally, we will set a couple of vehicles outside on fire during the drill. In addition to adding realism to the simulated incident, this provides responders with additional tasks to prioritize and address.
We have even “peeled” cars to simulate a vehicle explosion. Using explosive props teaches students to proceed with caution and search areas for secondary devices. Such props can be easily rigged for movement signaling a detonation. Haz-mat spill props, such as chlorine tanks, tank trucks, and pepper spray bombs, allow participants to practice with new equipment and learn new training (photo 3).
One of my favorites is an audiotape of the sounds of chaos and people screaming. We play this tape on the public address system in the school during the drill in addition to setting off the fire alarms, which adds realism, especially with our latest edition of firearm “simunitions.” This is a modified version of a paintball gun, and it eliminates the arguments of who shot whom and certainly gets the responders’ blood pumping at the scene. Surprisingly, these pellets do not leave much of a cleanup mess either, an advantage at the end of the drill. The props that can be used are limited only by the imagination; there are many you can use.
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Drills are essential to preparedness. Go out in your response area and see what resources are available, create a plan, and then get your community together and test it. Although putting together a drill of this size is a major undertaking, it can be done simply by recruiting help and taking it one step at a time. Start out small, test individual plan segments first, and then work your way up to a major mock disaster drill. Hopefully, the information above will inspire you to plan and conduct drills in your schools so you will be prepared for the day we hope never comes. ■
■ KEVIN KUPIETZ is the fire/EMS school director for Halifax Community College in Weldon, North Carolina, and has more than 13 years of experience in the fire and emergency medical services. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire engineering from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Kupietz is a member of the Roanoke Rapids Fire Department; Gaston EMS; and North Carolina Regional Response Team-1 (NC RRT-1), which responds to haz-mat incidents.