Actors, officials stage emergency drill

School shooting simulation tests preparedness

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1:08 p.m.: A call comes in that three people have been shot in the office of Craig Middle School. The receptionist hides under a desk while relaying the scene to dispatch. Two shooters run down the school's hallway.

1:14 p.m.: Four students sprint out of the school, taking off in different directions. Another student runs out a side door and yells, "Somebody help! Somebody help!" before collapsing on the grass.

BY MICHELLE PERRY Daily Press Writer Without sirens and a sense of urgency, bystanders weren't sure Wednesday's mass casualty drill was believable. "I think it's a good trial, in case something does happen," Katrina Baker said. "They obviously need practice," Lindsay Anderson added. Standing nearby, JoAnn Baxter said she thought response time was slow. Plus, law enforcement officers did not turn on their lights or sirens, making the drill seem just that, a drill. Sgt. Rick Holford of the Moffat County Sheriff's Department, however, noted sirens usually unnecessarily startle community members. So, in mock situations, the forces avoid the additional attention. For those who do not read the newspaper, Baker said the simulation would be confusing to those passing by. "You wouldn't know what was going on, unless you knew what was going on," she said. She was on a walk with Anderson and saw the roadblocks. She had read about the drill, so she decided to stay and watch. When Baker was a sophomore at Moffat County High School, in the mid-1990s, officers put on a mock alcohol-related wreck. The accident, which included a fatality, was very realistic and believable, nothing like what she saw Wednesday. She just didn't think the officers treated the incident like an actual shooting. Anderson agreed, wondering why teachers' vehicles were removed from both of the school's parking lots. In a typical situation, she said, the vehicles would prove an obstacle for emergency workers, so they should take that into account when practicing. Moreover, students participating in the drill wore lime green T-shirts that read, "ACTOR." Officials from other regions' emergency services, who wore white hats that said "OBSERVER" penetrated the area with digital and video cameras. Anderson thought those involved should have wore plain clothes because, in a real-life situation, innocent students could not be distinguished from shooters.

1:42 p.m.: A screaming parent arrives on the scene demanding to know where her son is and whether he's hurt. She talks to students as they are being treated for their injuries before she tries to enter the building. Police tackle the woman who struggles to get past and into the front door.

These are a sampling of the events that occurred during a mass casualty drill on Wednesday at Craig Middle School. The planned events were a test for local law enforcement, emergency services and school district officials on how to react in a crisis, such as a shooting at a local school.

"This is 200 percent better than a year ago," said Chuck Vale with Routt County's Office of Emergency Management. Vale's comment referred to a mass casualty drill that officials executed last year at Tri-State Generation and Transmission Plant. He was one of a few bystanders charged with observing the event and would later be asked to report how he thought the drill was handled.

Officials have been planning Wednesday's drill for months. It marked the first time agencies have communicated using new 800-megahertz digital radios.

About 50 high school students volunteered to play as actors in the event held on the school's second floor. Students and some adult actors were given instructions in advance on what to do. They had labels on their clothes that stated their injuries. Actors were supposed to react to two shooters in the building. Some reported hearing shots being fired but not knowing what was happening. Rooms were choked with artificial smoke and classrooms were intentionally disheveled. City workers set up roadblocks along the side streets leading toward the school.

"There was this guy who walked in and looked around, held his hands up and started shooting," said sophomore Donna Look, who played the part of an actor. "It was actually pretty scary."

Shooters were armed with blanks and all law enforcement officials responding to the drill unloaded rounds from every weapon before entering the school. Seventh- and eighth-grade students were kept from the drill and seeing the weapons. Almost two-thirds of CMS students were absent from school Wednesday. However, officials planned to educate those students who did show for school about how to act in a similar crisis following the drill.

Two of seven student actors who started in one classroom and later escaped to a sidewalk across the street from the school didn't make it out. They were shot or killed inside the building. About seven students were transferred to The Memorial Hospital to be treated for their injuries -- an exercise for emergency workers to simultaneously treat a number of people.

"Even though we knew it was coming, it was still pretty scary," sophomore actor Lisa Pressley said.

Student actors said the killer had an "evil" look or a "typical killer look" on his face. Actors were charged with describing the shooter to police.

Student actors later were debriefed about the incident.

In the event of a "real" crisis, people would be kept far from the scene and Craig's Yampa Avenue would be closed down, said Sgt. Rick Holford of the Moffat County Sheriff's Department, who acted as contact for the media and public.

One student actor collapsed outside the building's entrance and was left there for at least a half hour, while law enforcement stormed past into the building.

Holford said that in a school shooting incident, law enforcement's first priority would be to locate and contain a shooting suspect or suspects. Officials think that there would be fewer victims if that tactic were practiced in the light of the shootings at Columbine High School.

Don Smith, a resident who lived a few doors down from the school, watched the events unfold. He said he was glad to see officials had a plan of action in the case of an emergency because he has two children in the school district.

"I don't think Craig's immune to anything that the big towns have," he said. "Without some sort of training, I think it would be a lot worse."

Some student actors expressed varying emotions while watching the scene after escaping the school. Some laughed to ease the tension while others looked somberly toward fellow students were being loaded onto stretchers or running screaming from the building.

"It, like, gives you a reality check," student actor Whitney Showalter said. "It's like Craig -- you wouldn't think anything like that would happen. It's still scary even though you know it's fake."

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