When a member of Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Medical Services asked how many “patients” would need transported to the hospital, he was concerned because county EMS was only able to contribute one ambulance to Friday’s exercise.
“Think outside the box,” was Christy Saunders’ reply.
Saunders, who is the Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management director, was speaking at the start of Friday’s multi-agency active school shooter drill. The exercise was held at Northeastern High School and began shortly after 9 a.m.
Earlier, about 40 police and emergency medical personnel met at the staging area behind Ollie’s Bargain Outlet at nearby Port Elizabeth Centre. There they received instructions for the exercise, and police officers underwent a firearms security check. They were issued blue plastic training pistols to use during the exercise.
The staging area also served as the dispatch and communications center. The drill began with a simulated active shooter in the school cafeteria, where inside dozens of volunteers were playing the roles of frightened students and school staff. All radio communications related to the drill were preceded and followed by the words, "This is a drill."
Just like in a real situation, the police response was staggered. First a single deputy pulled into the school’s front parking lot. She ran inside and moments later the sirens of more vehicles could be heard in the distance speeding to the scene. Within 15 minutes, more than a dozen police vehicles were scattered about the campus.
In one instance, a woman who appeared wounded was spotted running from the school’s front entrance, where she collapsed as an officer approached. Other officers began a sweep of the outside of the school, and at least two were faced early on with a real-world difficulty. All of the doors leading in from outside appeared to be locked.
At this point, if the situation was real, the heavy police presence would have been obvious to the surrounding community that something serious was happening at the school.
Meanwhile, George Archuleta, a member of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank school board, was playing the role of a reporter.
“What’s the situation?” Archuleta pressed the person on the other end of the phone. “We see it’s pretty active on Facebook.”
At the front of the school, one suspect, a male, was seen after having been apprehended by police. On the east side of the school near the gymnasium, volunteers playing injured victims began escaping into the parking lot.
Without enough ambulances to respond to the injured, an “outside the box” decision was made and police officers began loading the patients into their vehicles. Sentara Albemarle Medical Center was also participating and they treated the wounded victims as they arrived.
Other challenges the scenario threw at the law enforcement officers were two explosions, plus several volunteers acting the role of concerned parents and worried students. Some of them were seen trying to run back into the school, but despite their protests officers managed to grab them and turn them away, and some were even detained.
“There were a lot of twists and turns in this scenario,” Saunders said, as the exercise began to wind down.
For instance, the scenario actually involved two shooters, a male and his girlfriend, Saunders said. The male entered the school first and began firing, while the girlfriend remained outside.
Northeastern was chosen specifically for the exercise, Saunders said. That’s because the school has several buildings located outside and away from the main building. Also, in the back of the school behind the soccer field there is a path through the woods that leads to the school district’s transportation garage and to Central Elementary School.
The second suspect, the female, was apprehended after she fled and used the path to evade police.
The exercise planners wanted to take advantage of some of the school's foreseeable trouble spots to learn ways to best handle them, Saunders said.
“We tried to highlight those,” she added.
More than 125 people took part in the exercise, including dozens of volunteers. Other agencies involved were Elizabeth City police and fire departments, the Camden and Pasquotank sheriff’s offices, state Highway Patrol, Currituck County EMS, the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, among others.
According to Saunders, the exercise was funded by a grant from the N.C. Division of Emergency Management. Planning for the exercise began earlier this spring. She said officials involved in the exercise will hold an after-action meeting to discuss the lessons learned.
“We want to do as much as we can to be prepared,” she said.