It was a riveting simulation of tragic events that in recent years have become all too real.
That was the aim of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, which on Sunday morning sponsored the training exercise, "Westfield Annapolis Mall Active Shooter," that demonstrated first-response procedures to an incident involving a lone man armed with handguns and a backpack shooting and harming patrons at the indoor shopping center.
Anne Arundel Police and Fire departments, the Annapolis Police Department and Westfield Annapolis officials staged the exercise, which began inside the mall at 6 a.m., five hours before the mall's 11 a.m. Sunday opening. Anne Arundel Police officials said about 100 personnel took part, including patrol officers, fire EMS, 911 dispatch and a fire-and-police command post outside the mall.
The mall and its parking lots were closed and cordoned off throughout the exercise, which officials said trained officials from different departments to coordinate and respond to such events as the Columbia Mall shooting in January and the Washington Navy Yard shooting last September.
"You don't have to go too far … to see examples of this type of critical incident in our country and in our own back yard," said Anne Arundel Police Chief Kevin Davis. Since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, officials said, first-response procedures, and training have changed.
"We no longer surround, call SWAT and wait while people die," Davis said. "Our first responders are [trained in] identifying a threat and then going into a scenario and mitigating the threat and saving lives."
Officials said that all Anne Arundel police officers have been versed in Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT), a curriculum developed in 2002 by Texas State University and neighboring law enforcement agencies after the Columbine tragedy.
Maryland law enforcement personnel are among more than 40,000 officers in 37 states and the District of Columbia who have received the scenario-based training since its inception, Texas State officials said.
Davis said that in Sunday's first-response exercise officials incorporated many procedures used by Howard County police during their response to the Columbia Mall shooting. "One of the new things we've simulated [Sunday] to a very large degree is our effective use of social media in the event of a real emergency," said Davis. "That's one of the things that Howard County did really, really well. You can't have a press conference every 15 minutes, but you can warn the community about an ongoing, unfolding event via social media."
The exercise featured the loud cracking sounds of gunfire — that were blanks — law enforcement personnel shouting, "Get your hands up!" to possible suspects and people dashing to safety inside the mall. Some personnel posed as victims who had been shot, while others reported the tragedy as it unfolded.
The exercise indoor events ended in the mall food court and were shielded from non-law-enforcement personnel. Anne Arundel Police officials said that the scenario was designed for the suspect to be contained. Afterward, the exercise shifted outside, where emergency personnel treated wounded victims. Officials said there were 15 staged injuries and fatalities.
"We are all too familiar with these type of horrific events," said Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, who said that she met Davis and Fire Chief Michael Cox about staging the exercise before the Columbia Mall shooting.
"We have two large malls in Anne Arundel County, and it's very important that as we come together with our public safety, we are prepared for any scenario," Neuman added. "My hope is that we never have to use this valuable training in a real emergency."
Neuman said that in response to requests from county citizens to hire more police and to recommendations from Davis, she has taken steps toward adding 120 police officers to the county department over the next five years. She said her fiscal year 2015 budget proposes adding 20 officers.
Davis said Sunday's first-response scenario included several evaluators who will analyze and report on how well the exercise went. He said officials would undergo another assessment next week followed by a formal assessment involving security agency and county government officials.
In recent years, officials have conducted other exercises, but those involved primarily hazardous waste spills.
"We practice as we play. We live in a different world today," said Cox. "We know that there are high-impact incidents. Although they are low in frequency, we need to be prepared for that."