Carroll County Times

County, college officials learn from active shooter drills

Emergency workers tend to one of the victims of a simulated campus shooting during an inter-agency disaster exercise at McDaniel College in Westminster May 31, 2009.

The words were repeated over and over again. "This is an exercise," officials said. And again: "This is an exercise."

These four words preceded each command the first responders, emergency management personnel and Carroll Community College officials said over their handheld radios. That's because they didn't want any residents listening to the police scanner to think there was an active shooter at Carroll Community College in September.

It was just an exercise.

And one that involved various local agencies - from the Carroll County Sheriff's Office to local fire/rescue officials to Carroll Hospital Center to Westminster Police Department to county Office of Public Safety officials. The purpose: to practice in real time how the county would respond if a gunman opened fire on the campus.

"We're not immune to these kinds of things in Carroll County," said James Weed, the Office of Public Safety's emergency management coordinator. "Although we'd love to think we're this really rural community isolated from the violence and the guns and the mayhem, we're really not."

While practice can't lead to perfection - there's no perfect in emergency scenarios, there's thinking quickly in the moment, Weed said - county officials get a lot out of these drills. The positives are acknowledged. The shortcomings are identified.

Discussions are held to pinpoint problems, and reports are written to identify areas that need to be fixed. There are follow-up meetings months after to ensure trouble spots don't go unresolved, according to Weed.

If shots rang around the campus killing 26 people as gunman Adam Lanza did at a Connecticut elementary school earlier this month or killing 32 people in a two-hour window, as Seung-Hui Cho did at Virginia Tech in 2007, the county wants to be prepared to mitigate the incident as quickly and effectively as possible.

"It's a dynamic process," Weed said. "We're always trying to improve."

The county has held two collaborative active shooter exercises - one at McDaniel College in 2009 and the one at Carroll Community College in September.

While the scenarios follow a general script, the emergency responders do not know what's supposed to happen, and things change as the event unfolds in real time.

Because sometimes, situations arise that weren't planned for.

At McDaniel College's 2009 drill, the 911 dispatcher originally told officers to arrive at Blanche Ward Hall to respond to a gunman on campus, according to Mike Webster, the college's director of campus safety. The incident was occurring in a different building with a similar name, Albert Norman Ward Hall.

"When you get that call, adrenaline kicks in, and you start making decisions," Webster said. "Sometimes, as we learned there, if you don't take a deep breathe and collect yourself, you can make a bad decision."

Another issue that arose was the location of the incident command post - the hub of officials working behind the scenes. An individual had to walk through the gymnasium's exterior door into the building's lobby. Then through another interior door into a suite of offices, through another door into where the officials were huddled together trying to pacify the fake gunman.

Now, campus safety officers have big green signs that read "Incident Command Post." In the event of an emergency, they'll be hung up to help officials get to the post - which will be in an easier to find location, Webster said.

Yet, Webster left the practice scenario feeling confident in county officials' and his 15 campus safety officers' abilities.

"The drill made me very comfortable that we were ready," he said. "We learned some little things, but those, really in the grand scheme of things, were really minor things. All the major benchmarks were hit."

At Carroll Community College in September, different issues arose, according to Alan Schuman, the college's vice president of administration.

The announcement of an active shooter on campus was made over the PA system. But some of the speakers' placement in classrooms sprinkled around the campus wasn't in close proximity to where students could actually hear. So, about four more speakers were installed in October, Schuman said.

The county's mobile units that hold television screens, tables and other needed equipment were set up in the parking lot. Yet, while the officials huddled inside the vehicle attempted to access the college's live video screens, the feed kept crashing.

That's because they accessed it from outside the network. The college is in the process of putting a connection to the college's computer system that can be retrieved from the parking lot, which is slated to be complete by the spring, according to Schuman.

It's difficult to know precisely what to do when disaster strikes, Schuman said. But the more practice officials have dealing with such situations, the more prepared the community will be.