According to the FBI, from 2000 until 2013 in the United States, 486 people were killed in 160 active shooter situations, defined as when a shooting is in progress and “law enforcement personnel and citizens have the potential to affect the outcome of the event based upon their responses.” Last week in Harrisonburg, various local law enforcement and emergency agencies practiced responding to such a situation. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz attended, and filed this report. A note of caution: While the scenario you are about to hear is staged, it also can be frightening.
[Sounds of the drill: Officers being called by dispatcher]
It was a sober exercise, a drill designed to be stressful, a replication of an unthinkably tragic and not wholly improbable event: multiple active shooters in an elementary school.
[Sounds of the drill: Officers responding to radio dispatcher]
CHIEF STEPHEN MONTICELLI: It's huge anxiety.
Harrisonburg Police Chief Stephen Monticelli was among the local law enforcement, security, and emergency responders taking part in the drill.
MONTICELLI: I mean, that's the reason we've got every level of people. We want them to see it here so if it ever would happen, God forbid, then they kind of know what's coming and they're better prepared on what to do and how to react.
[Sounds of the drill: Dispatcher relaying information about the emergency at Waterman Elementary]
School system staff and student volunteers had been prepped for role playing. Tammy Atkins, fiscal officer at Harrisonburg High School, was in the cafeteria.
ATKINS: We're helping the police department train so the more that we can train them, then we feel safer. We're able to help them help us. We’re going to be frantic.
[Sounds of the drill: A role player calls 911 from Waterman Elementary.]
Even though it was not a real event, every second starting with the 911 call until police arrived seemed to crawl by. The fire alarm sounded, and about four minutes after the initial call in the training, HPD officer Seth Conley entered the cafeteria, his weapons loaded with blank ammunition for the drill.
[Sounds of the drill: shooting, yelled police commands]
Several minutes later, as instructed, members of the media became participants, too -- by calling an emergency number set up for the drill to ask for information about the event. HPD Lieutenant Kurt Boshart explained why:
BOSHART: We want to add pressure, real-life pressure on the incident scene commanders about what’s happening. They're going to be inundated with calls coming in and different things that they’re going to have to take care of.
DISPATCHER: 911, What is your emergency?
CLYMER KURTZ: I’m a reporter with WMRA. I'm outside Waterman Elementary, and about to go in. I'm wondering where I can meet somebody.
DISPATCHER: Do not access the building, and I would advise you to step away. Do not put yourself in any kind of danger.
Three quarters of a mile away, the mood was also tense in the emergency command mobile unit parked at the National Guard Armory. Dee Dee Sencindiver is Operations Manager for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Emergency Communications Center.
DEE DEE SENCINDIVER: We're the brain, the heartbeat, the hub. It's kind of like everything initially comes in to us, and then we disseminate it out where it needs to go. Very stressful.
[Sounds of the drill: SWAT called to Waterman Elementary]
As drill events continued to unfold at the school, outside the command unit HPD Officer Brooke Wetherell held the first of several mock press briefings.
BROOKE WETHERELL: This morning at approximately 9:30 am, officers with the Harrisonburg Police responded to Waterman Elementary School here in the city of Harrisonburg for reports of an active shooter. At this time….
After that mock announcement during this active shooter drill, Wetherell reflected on her role as a public information officer.
WETHERELL: Our job is to get this information out so that we can keep people safe that aren't even at the school, that aren’t even at the event while it's unfolding. It can definitely be a little heart pumping going on there, getting a little nervous, you want to make sure you're saying the right thing, so it can get a little nerve wracking sometimes.
How schools and other public spaces are protected in the first place is up to the community, not the police, said Lieutenant Boshart:
BOSHART: I don't think the public would allow us to be responsible for the security of the schools, because if we're responsible, if you're going to put that responsibility on us, we're going to lock it down. We're going to make sure it's secured. There's only going to be so much security in a free society.
The drill was designed to practice responding to active shooters, not prevention or addressing the root causes of societal violence. However, the morning’s scenario also effected a weighty awareness, that in our society our freedoms and expected ways of life are not without risk.