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Harrisonburg first responders train for active shooter scenario

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Randi B. Hagi
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Two Harrisonburg police officers practice escorting a civilian through school hallways during an active shooter situation.

First responders in the Harrisonburg area held their annual active shooter training last week. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports on what they’re learning from recent mass shootings. And please note that this story does include audio from their simulations, including the sounds of gunfire and people calling for help.

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Local residents role-play injured victims who are removed from the school by fire and rescue personnel.

When I arrived at Bluestone Elementary School last Thursday afternoon, I was given a green observer vest – so the officers would know I wasn't role-playing a victim who needed saving – and ushered upstairs to one of four training areas set up in the school. There, instructors were running multiple scenarios for the rescue task force – a group of both Harrisonburg police officers and fire and rescue personnel whose goal was to safely extract injured victims from classrooms.

[sound of people calling for help]

OFFICER 1: Alright, what you got?

OFFICER 2: Shots fired toward the stairwell.

The police officers and pretend "shooter" carried guns that shot military-grade blanks – so, they produced a loud sound and the smell of gunpowder, and expelled shell casings, but didn't actually shoot bullets.

TRAVIS KARICOFE: It's to make it as realistic as possible, so …

Travis Karicofe, with the Harrisonburg Fire Department, was one of the instructors.

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Harrisonburg Police Officer Hartley advances towards a simulated shooter in an exercise.

KARICOFE: It actually gives them the experience of what it is like using a real gun, shooting similar-type ammunition, and the sounds and everything like that. So it better conditions them rather than to just have a rubber gun or a toy gun and say "bang, bang, bang."

[people yelling for help]

OFFICER 1: You hold hallway, hold long, I'm going in … two shooters!

OFFICER 2: Two shooters down?

[sound of gunshots]

OFFICER 2: Shots fired on this side.

In case you’re just now joining this story… this is a simulated event, not an actual one.

After they ran each exercise, Harrisonburg Police Detective Jason Wyant would debrief with the officers.

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Detective Jason Wyant (right) coaches Officer Van Poots after running through a rescue task force scenario.

JASON WYANT: So we've always got to think about angles. So if I'm here, and Travis and the fire guys are over here close to that corner, where are they exposed to that I can't see? … I need to flow over here and protect them. It's, you're operation human shield at that point.

Some exercises involved directly confronting a shooter – others, barricading rooms of students and getting them out safely.

WYANT: How else could we get out of this building? Out of this room, specifically? There's a big glass door there. There's an exterior window. The sheetrock over the counter right there – the fire guys and girls carry a sledgehammer held in their toolkit or whatever they carry … to chew a hole this big to get somebody out doesn't take very long at all.

The instructors were assembled from the Harrisonburg Fire and Police Departments, and nearby town police departments, including Dayton and Timberville.

Robert Hilley with the Harrisonburg Fire Department said that’s important now, especially in the wake of the two officers at Bridgewater College being shot and killed in February.

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Two officers simulate opening fire on a school shooter in a "probing contact" exercise.

On another floor of the school, groups of four police officers were practicing "probing contact," where they've been called to an active shooter situation, but it's all quiet when they arrive, and they don't know where the shooter is hiding. Raymond Lilly, a training coordinator with the James Madison University Police Department, debriefed an officer about what to do when they encounter a civilian but may need to keep moving to find the shooter.

OFFICER: I just didn't like leaving him there since we hadn't cleared the three or four rooms …

LILLY: I agree. It's a bad feeling to leave someone who you're in charge of taking care of. What choices do you have? You have two. Leave him and continue your job, or stay with him, which is your job also. You know, you think about the shooting down there in Texas – they'll be Monday morning quarterbacking that thing for the next two years. … 'You could have done this, you should have done this.' In the moment, you're like, "ah, what the hell do I do?" … Take the information you have, digest it as quickly, the best you can, make an informed decision off what you've got and rock with it.

While this training is an annual occurrence, recent events – such as the deadly shootings in Uvalde, Texas and at Bridgewater College – do inform how they're designed and conducted.

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Officers Thompson and Diaz practice approaching a classroom with a shooter and hostages inside.

Hilley showed me another set of exercises where pairs of officers enter a school and are directed – by gunfire, a trail of casings, or the victims themselves – towards a shooter holed up in a classroom.

ROBERT HILLEY: You've seen this scenario a couple of different times now, because it's kind of the same thing as Uvalde. It's not identical, but it's – there's a threat inside this classroom – how do I address it? And there's a very narrow window for success. So that's where they're kind of talking about, what are our options?

Each year, the training culminates in one giant scenario with police, fire, and EMS all responding. This year, it'll be held at JMU's Village residence halls in early August.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.