Training aims to help prevent another Va. Tech

Screams, shrieks, blaring alarms and banging erupted from the normally quiet halls of the Ocean View public safety building on Wednesday, April 16. When quiet was restored, one suspect had surrendered to police. The other resisted officers and was shot — with a paintball gun, that is.

Coastal Point • M. Patricia Titus: Ocean View police officers train in tactical response on Wednesday.Coastal Point • M. Patricia Titus
Ocean View police officers train in tactical response on Wednesday.

The entire episode was a training drill for police, part of a three-day seminar on tactical response to “active shooter” incidents, such as the one that coincidentally occurred one year prior, to the day, on the campus of Virginia Tech.

With the help of Steven Smith, a member of the board of directors and SWAT Training Cadre of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), Ocean View police transformed their upper story this week into an active shooter scene.

Simulated armed suspects, bystanders and responding officers dealt not only with the danger of armed assailants but the chaos inherent in such a situation, including simulated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) portrayed with plastic water bottles.

According to Smith, the recorded screams, bangs and alarms help officers get a real-life sense of what this kind of situation can be like — “sensory overload,” he called it — to better train them in how to respond should it some day be something more than a simulation.

“When we’re training in a real school setting, we’ll set off the fire alarms and put the CDs through the P.A. system at full volume,” Smith noted. “We try to make it as realistic as possible.”

“If we were able to do that here,” he added, “we wouldn’t be able to communicate without shouting.”

Communication is key for officers who respond to a scene where an armed person may be threatening or harming others, Smith said. “Otherwise, we might have police officers shooting police officers.”

Volunteers served as simulated bystanders and suspects for this week’s exercises, while one Ocean View officer played the part of an officer who had been injured in an initial response and needed to be evacuated.

Response teams in full protective gear had to separate bystanders from suspects, contain the suspects, evacuate the bystanders and the injured, and secure the scene. Each movement was coordinated verbally and with non-verbal cues, with various teams coordinating via radio, just as in a real incident. And, as if in a real incident, they each moved directly toward the sound of gunfire coming down the OVPD hallway, where suspects were confronted and disarmed.

“He didn’t follow the officers’ commands, and he got shot,” Smith said of the primary “suspect” in Wednesday morning’s scenario. “The other suspect was taken into custody without incident. He cooperated,” Smith emphasized.

Some 20 police officers, including about 10 local officers, took part in the three-day training course held this week in Ocean View. Each took turns serving in the simulations on teams of responding officers, rescuers and trainers — the latter simulating the training they will later give their own officers at home in similar scenarios.

NTOA trainers served to critique all three sets of performances, ensuring, Smith said, that both their response in the situation and how they train others is exactly as it should be.

“After each scenario, we’ll debrief and critique each group,” Smith said. “We’ll fix the problems and run it again. We want to get to where it’s in their muscle memory and in their heads the right way to do it.”

OVPD Chief Ken McLaughlin, freshly returned from an extended training session with the FBI, led his officers, those from neighboring departments and even some from as far away as Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania through Wednesday morning’s training drill — one of many the group participated in during the course of the three days of training.

Each of them is being trained as a trainer this week, so that they can pass along the knowledge they’ve gained to their fellow officers at home, dispersing the information around the nation.

For McLaughlin, the value of the training is clear.

“History tells us that these situations happen very quickly and are over very quickly,” he explained. “They will be handled by police officers, not a SWAT team,” he emphasized. “By the time a SWAT team was all mobilized and got here, it would be over. It could take them an hour or two to get down here.”

“If not us, then who?” McLaughlin added. “If it’s not handled by the police, there’s no one else to stop it. It’s a shame, but it’s part of life now, unfortunately.”

McLaughlin said that, while Virginia Tech was high on the officers’ minds as they practiced on the one-year anniversary of that incident, it is not only schools that are at risk for shooting incidents.

“We all think about schools, but imagine a man is spotted on the boardwalk with a rifle in the middle of the summer, or on the Fourth of July with 20,000 people packed on the beach,” he said. “The Bethany Beach police, Ocean View police or South Bethany police would be the people dealing with it. It would be the patrol officers.”

Smith explained that the NTAO had taken responsibility for training police departments nationwide on how to respond to active shooter situations after the school massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“We saw we badly needed to get the information out there. And we had debriefed [the local police] to see what they had experienced and what had gone well and what had not,” he said. “It’s been revised since then, of course,” he noted.

Smith, too, emphasized that the risk of shooting incidents is not confined to schools. Also high on the list of potential targets are government buildings, court houses, factories and offices.

“They never expected it,” McLaughlin said of police and other officials in locations where previous shooting incidents have happened. “And we won’t expect it if it happens here tomorrow. But we will be prepared. This is a critical task,” he emphasized.

“It’s a high community expectation,” Smith added. “And there’s a high liability.”

“This community needs to know that it may be a small bedroom community on the beach, but it can happen anywhere. It seems to always happen in small communities,” he said.

With this week’s training, Ocean View officers — and others in nearby communities and around the nation — will be better prepared to deal with that risk should it become a reality here or elsewhere, and citizens can be assured their local officers are ready to respond should the unthinkable happen.