This Is Just a Drill
- By Alex Parrott
- July 1st, 2012
Two security officers on duty at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, FL, have been alerted that a training exercise will be taking place at 9 a.m. on May 16, but have no idea what kind of situation they will be asked to respond to. Local police officers and EMTs have each been told the same, as has a SWAT team positioned two miles off campus.
The drill, as it turns out, is this: At the stroke of 9, two young men armed with guns loaded with loud blanks pull their vehicle into a handicap parking space, enter a classroom, and open fire. The two shooters, role players, are also equipped with a fictitious back story. One served in the military and is suffering from PTSD. The other, his younger brother, is a student who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend. The first two victims targeted in this shooting scenario are the ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.
Both of them are shot and killed. The professor is shot and injured. The perpetrators run out of the classroom, across the courtyard, and through the cafeteria, shooting more students along the way. Then they disappear.
When they reappear, they’ve taken the entire top floor of a residence hall hostage, disabled the elevator, and sealed off the stairwells. From there they call security and issue their demands: They need a van and a driver, and if they don’t get it they’ll start killing hostages.
The shooters have also planted an explosive outside campus security and safety, where the police have set up a command post. Under threat of the bomb’s detonation, security agrees to deliver a van and a driver as requested, but the police covertly disable the perpetrators when they emerge from the residence hall.
By now, it’s 11:15 a.m. The drill is over, with two “fatalities” and five “injuries.”
Nothing Is Impossible
Mere play-acting? Far from it. For colleges and universities, the events simulated at Saint Leo seem an all-too-real possibility. At Otterbein University in Westerville, OH, campus Police Chief Larry Banaszak has been researching school shootings since the infamous 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. In a recent presentation given to the Otterbein community, Banaszak cited 18 shooting incidents on college and university campuses in the past two years.
Banaszak hopes that by acknowledging this grim reality, he can inspire students and faculty to better prepare themselves and thereby avoid future casualties. “Having a mindset of ‘it’ll never happen here’ is not just ignorant, but dangerous,” he says. Banaszak now gives regular training sessions at Otterbein, arming would-be victims with an active plan for resisting a shooter: To run, hide, barricade, and fight as a last resort.
Brent Oberholtzer, director of public safety at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA, agrees that conditioning assertive and clear-headed responses in students is critical to overall readiness. “Let everybody know about your plans for keeping them safe and how they ought to respond in the event of a crisis,” he advises.
Of course, what students are capable of handling depends on a school’s projected attitude toward crisis situations. Every school has contingency plans for natural disasters; schools that articulate a similar program for an active shooter will preemptively counteract panic and paralysis.
“Crises can come and go, whether that means hurricanes, fires, or hostile intruders,” says Greg Krikorian, Lebanon Valley’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “At the end of the day, whatever the issue, we need to have effective communications in place and a clear plan of action.”
to the Unthinkable
Hence drills such the one at Saint Leo, which are being used to test the efficacy of emergency response. An active shooter scenario was something Robert Sullivan, Saint Leo’s executive director of campus security and safety, had hoped to drill since he arrived at the University three years ago.
“Active shooter drills are done regularly in K–12, and we got to wondering why universities don’t take a more proactive approach,” Sullivan explains. “It took three years to bring the department to the stage where I was comfortable putting this drill on. We simply didn’t have the people, systems, and protocol in place any earlier.”
For Sullivan, that meant implementing new security hardware. The number of campus security cameras increased from 18 to 200. The emergency alert system was placed under a centralized authority and linked up to the Blackboard Connect program. An audio alert system was introduced across campus to relay messages to those away from their phones. The department also began using mountain bikes, and put the floor plans for campus buildings on one online system.
Then, in April, Sullivan asked Saint Leo President Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., for permission to conduct an active shooter drill in May, after the end of spring semester but before the start of summer camps. Kirk readily acceded.
For Sullivan and his co-conspirator in the police force, planning the training exercise proved a massive endeavor. “In preparing for this, there are so many imponderables that you have to ponder,” he remarks. “I didn’t want to bring the entire campus to a halt.”
Setting the Stage
To caution and divert passers-by for whom the simulation might seem all too real, the sheriff’s office closed off the entrance to the University with an LED “Drill in Progress” sign. The drill also had to contend with ongoing campus construction projects and the 200 workers who would be on campus, many of whom didn’t speak English.
“We had a special meeting with 10 construction superintendents, telling them what would be going on,” recalls Sullivan. “We really stressed two things: To make sure nobody brought a gun or interfered with the drill. Somebody’s well-intentioned intervention could have been catastrophic.”
Of the 60 students on campus for the summer, a full 45 agreed to participate when Sullivan sent out an open call for actors. He instructed them, simply, to act as college students, to imagine their own reactions to a dire crisis. He also warned them of the verisimilitude and seriousness of the exercise.
“These SWAT professionals who came in take these exercises very seriously,” says Sullivan. “It’s their job, their life, and I warned students not to mess with them. Afterward, some of the kids told me they were scared to death by the SWAT team. They really do have that level of intensity, even during a drill.”
Now, with the experience of the drill behind them, the Saint Leo security and safety department is beginning to collect the educational payoff. “The process of learning from this drill is almost as arduous as that of setting it up,” Sullivan admits. “We’ve got to look at what we did right and what we did wrong.”
The review process is still underway, both at campus security and safety and at the sheriff’s office, EMS, and SWAT. After comparing notes, all four organizations will sit down to draft a comprehensive response plan. On campus, improvements to the audio alert system and security headquarters are already in progress.
“We’re coming out of this with a lot of hard recommendations, as well as tough questions,” says Sullivan. “I’m talking questions such as, ‘Is it safe for EMS to render aid in the line of gunfire?’”
Meanwhile, Sullivan says he is already looking ahead to drilling a different scenario next May. “Maybe we’ll do a bad toxic spill in a chemistry lab to test our response to hazardous materials,” he speculates. “In Florida, we already do hurricanes pretty well. The question should be, ‘What are we not tuned in to?’ That’s what I want to drill. Every May, hopefully, we’ll do a new, really bad scenario.”
Ultimately, Sullivan is unequivocal about the importance of running active shooter drills, however difficult it is to contemplate such bleak situations. He also believes preparing for an active shooter at the university level requires even more foresight and coordination than in K–12 schools.
“Our high schools, for the most part, are gated communities,” he explains. “There are very few doors, and it’s very controlled in terms of who goes in and who gets out. Universities aren’t like that at all. Everybody needs to think more tactically.”
Alex Parrott is a staff writer for Dick Jones Communications.