Local and area authorities hope the lessons reaffirmed in last week’s training exercise will never be used. But they want to be ready, just in case.
Law enforcement officers from eight area agencies, along with two groups of local firefighters and crews from three emergency medical responders combined for an Active Shooter Refresher Course, held February 21 at the vacant A.C. Moore Elementary School building in Atmore.
Chief Deputy Mike Lambert of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, who coordinated the training exercise, said he and Atmore Police Chief Chuck Brooks felt the time was right to make sure that all local and area agencies were able to act in concert to most effectively respond to the presence of a shooter or other deadly threat inside a local school.
“Especially with everything that’s going on across the nation right now, we wanted the people of Escambia County to know that the men and women — not just in law enforcement, but also EMS and fire — are all on the same team and that we’re on top of our game, to the best of our ability. A lot of the people in this group have no idea what’s going on in Atmore, and vice-versa. That’s why we’re mixing them up, so everybody will have a little familiarization.”
Lambert pointed out, though, that the timing of the special session — coming on the heels of the Valentine’s Day massacre at a Parkland, Fla. high school, where 17 people were killed and several others wounded — was actually coincidental.
“We had already had this planned before the shooting happened in Parkland,” Lambert said as several dozen men and women prepared to practice the procedures and protocols required during such a situation. “It’s kind of funny that it happened right after that shooting.”
The ACM building’s layout, with all classroom doors opening to the outside, presented some unique problems for participants, as did glassed-in entryways that led to a warren of offices, and a series of interior doors that opened in close proximity to the suite of offices.
The deputies, police officers, EMTs, firefighters and others worked mainly in groups of four — one yanking the door open, two rushing in and one remaining at the door as a “rear guard” in case a shooter approached from outside the room — as they entered the building and searched its interior.
To reduce the slim chance of an accidental shooting, none of those who burst in to locate the imaginary shooter were allowed to unholster their weapons. Instead, they used one hand as their “gun,” clasping it in the other in the classic shooter’s pose.
Each entry and search was evaluated by Deputy Jason Yoder, ECSO Capt. Greg Forbes, School Resource Officer Jeff Weaver, Lambert or Brooks.
Participants in the drill, some of whom earned Continuing Education credits, included personnel from ECSO, APD, Atmore Fire Department, Poarch Creek Indian police and fire departments, Atmore Ambulance Service, ASAP EMS-Ambulance, East Brewton Police, Alabama Department of Corrections, Thomasville Police Department, Conecuh County Sheriff’s Office, Andalusia Police Department, and a MedStar helicopter crew.
Brooks said the thrust of the exercise was to make sure that, if such an incident was to erupt here, all those agencies worked together toward one main goal.
“You look around, and you see all the different-colored uniforms,” the police chief said. “Our main goal is to work together to eliminate the threat, if it happens here. We don’t expect it, but the people in Parkland didn’t expect it, either. Basically, if we have an active shooter, officers are going to come and eliminate the shooter.”
Brooks noted that the majority of men and women taking part in the drill had already taken part in similar training exercises, but the recent Florida shooting made them all anxious for a chance to review how they should react in such a situation.
“This alert training, just about every officer here has it,” said the APD chief. “Most of them already know what to do, but due to recent events …”
Lambert said the February 21 exercise was the first leg of a plan to conduct similar training at “all of the high schools and elementary schools in the county” during the current year. He said he hopes that such specialized instruction would never be needed.
“We hope and pray we don’t have to use this, other than in a training scenario,” the chief deputy said. “But we train at one hundred ten percent so we stay at the top of our game. They teach you that there’s only a five percent chance over a twenty-five to thirty-year career that something like this is going to happen and you’re going to need to revert back to that training. We want to be ready in case that five percent chance happens.”