Annapolis, Perryman, Thousand Oaks: At active shooter workshop, no shortage of case studies

For the several dozen first responders attending an active-assailant workshop in Annapolis on Thursday, there was no shortage of real-life case studies from which to learn, both at home and across the country.

And in fact, the daylong seminars on how to manage a mass shooting began with attendees watching a video clip of the Ventura County, Calif., sheriff choking back sobs as he announced one of his deputies was among the 12 killed Wednesday night when he responded to the Borderline Bar shooting in Thousand Oaks.

“It used to be every couple of months, and then it was every month,” said Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Simmons of the Annapolis Office of Emergency Management, one of the agencies that sponsored the workshop. “Now it seems like it’s every week.”

Indeed, the California shooting came just 11 days after a gunman stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jewish congregants.

In Annapolis, those and every mass shooting hold particular and painful resonance.

“It takes you back to the day of,” said Jen Corbin, the Anne Arundel County crisis response director.

Corbin and her colleague, Lt. Steven Thomas, shared some of their experiences responding to the June 28 shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom, where five co-workers were killed: editors and writers Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Wendi Winters, and advertising sales assistant Rebecca Smith. Several were injured, and even more were and remain traumatized — an outward-expanding circle that encompasses the victims’ families, witnesses, those working elsewhere and the police and fire personnel who responded to a crime scene of horrific carnage, Corbin and Thomas said.

“Everyone is affected by it,” Thomas, the county’s crisis intervention team coordinator, told those attending the workshop. “Including Jen and I.”

The Capital Gazette is part of Baltimore Sun Media.

Corbin, who knew most of the victims and witnesses from having been interviewed for the Capital Gazette over the years, said responding to a crisis needs to be viewed beyond the event itself: People on the scene need immediate assistance, but they’ll need it afterward as well — after the memorials have ended, and when triggering events such as a criminal trial begin.

The workshop included sessions on how to coordinate among the multiple agencies that respond to a crisis, manage the influx of media, reunite families with those who were at the scene of the crime and, saddest of all, notifying those whose relatives are among the dead.

The sessions were a revelation in how much goes on behind the scenes, from establishing where loved ones can gather to transporting those evacuated from the crime scene to making sure there are enough phone lines for people to call into for information. And all has to be done under a highly pressurized and time-sensitive atmosphere.

Crisis responders like Corbin and Thomas said they have to try to soothe the traumatized victims and witnesses, even as they need to get them quickly to the detectives investigating the crime, so their memories aren’t tainted by what they hear from others. Then they need to notify the families of those killed in as compassionate a way possible, before they hear it from someone else.

Corbin told the attendees about how families of those killed in a mass shooting elsewhere hadn’t yet received formal notification when they learned it on their own: As they watched buses bring those evacuated from the scene to the family reunification center, the caravan suddenly ended and the family members were still standing there — waiting for those who would never come.

Such workshops are increasingly common, as agencies seek to improve how they respond to such crises. And, unfortunately, the cascade of mass shootings has provided all too many opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t: Between 2000 and 2017, there were 250 active-shooter incidents in the United States, according to data from Texas State University and the FBI. (The FBI defines those incidents as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a public area.”)

The response to such events has changed since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Simmons said. The “old style” was to secure the perimeter of the building and wait for a SWAT team to arrive, he said. But that delayed police from entering the building, and perhaps interrupting the rampage and saving lives, Simmons said.

Today, the state-of-the-art response is to enter as quickly as possible. Multiple agencies have been trained in this newer style of response, known as the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, or ALERRT, developed by Texas State University, said Mike Copeland, special agent and active-shooter coordinator for the Baltimore field office of the FBI.

In Maryland, 8,000 police and instructors have been trained since 2013. In Delaware, which mandates the training for all police, the FBI finished training the approximately 3,000 officers there last year.

The Annapolis workshop included speakers who discussed ALERRT and “rescue task forces,” in which combined teams of police and paramedics enter the building to begin treating victims as soon as possible — even as other officers are searching for the assailant.

The Harford County sheriff’s office had just begun training rescue task forces last year when they immediately were put into use: at the Oct. 18, 2017, workplace shooting at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood. Three workers were killed and two of their colleagues critically wounded.

In addition to Advanced Granite Solutions, Harford has suffered other tragic shootings: On Feb. 10, 2016, two sheriff’s deputies were killed in Abingdon; and on Sept. 20, three workers at the Rite Aid distribution center in Perryman were killed and three were injured by a temp worker who then killed herself.

“Here we go again,” read one slide that was part of the presentation by Cristie Hopkins and Kyle Anderson, spokespersons for the Harford sheriff.

Hopkins offered practical tips for managing information and controlling rumors during a crisis, such as broadcasting media briefings on Facebook and releasing basic information as quickly as possible while not damaging the investigation.

The workshop is part of a larger series of training exercises Annapolis and Anne Arundel had launched even before the Capital Gazette shooting. It will continue through next year with “tabletop” discussions where emergency personnel are given a scenario and come up with how they would handle it, as well as simulations of an actual event to which they’ll respond.

Such training is particularly vital in Annapolis, which despite being a mere seven square miles, has a multitude of agencies that can respond in an emergency, from the city, county and state — and even the Naval Academy, Simmons said.

“You have all these folks coming on the scene, bringing their own training and tactics and protocols,” he said. “We found out from that experience that we had to get on the same page.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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