Marching to the Sound of Gunshots

Virginia Tech incident puts emphasis on active shooter response


     Greenfield's 60-man department also dispatched trainers to the NTOA program, then trained its entire department in IARD tactics. These instructors later added school familiarization training to the agency's IARD curriculum. In this annual program, officers must walk through each school in the district and mark on a sheet where certain signs and other landmarks exist. "This gets them used to the school itself. Not every patrol officer gets into the schools on a regular basis, in particular the night shifts," Martin explains.

     Departments engaging in this type of training strive to make it as realistic as possible. The carnage the active shooter leaves in his wake is what nightmares are made of. Responding officers at Virginia Tech describe slipping on floors soaked in blood and tripping over bodies as they progressed through the building. IARD training is designed to put officers under as much stress as possible through noise, visual effects and Simunition rounds to give them a sense of how they might react when their senses are overloaded. "Most officers will work an entire career without ever having to deal with this situation — it's a real anomaly," says Callisto. "But this training readies officers for action should such a situation ever arise."

     Coleman relies on 10 to 15 role players to act as teachers and students in Jonesboro's 16-hour IARD exercise. He blasts a CD crammed with the sounds of gunfire, alarms sounding, shattering glass, whirring helicopters and screaming over the building's public address (PA) system. He calls this CD, created by the local radio station, deafening when played over a PA system. And that is by design. When he spoke with Columbine officers, they mentioned the sound of activated fire alarms was nauseating to the point where they felt they could not function. "We can't mimic that by any means," he says. "But when I crank up my CD, it gets your heart rate up. The more realistic you can make this training, the better prepared your officers will be in an actual situation."

     Jonesboro's scenarios transpire in actual buildings within their jurisdiction, such as school facilities during the summer break. The SWAT team also trains in these structures during separate educational sessions, but focuses on searches and entry tactics to gain familiarity with building layouts. Coleman changes up the scenarios every time. "We may have the suspect give up. We may have him engage the officer. We may have him kill the suspects or barricade them in a classroom," he says.

     Because most facilities are equipped with cable TV or satellite, Coleman instructs officers to call these organizations to shut off access. He emphasizes the Columbine gunmen viewed broadcasts of the tragedy on television before killing themselves. Even during training, Coleman says it's important to switch off these systems. This prevents anyone from tapping in and watching law enforcers train.

     IARD programs teach officers simple tactics that are easy to deploy during stressful situations. Then trainers put officers in varying scenarios that allow them to use these skills over and over again. This builds confidence in the tactics and in other team members. "There is comfort behind a rifle; there is comfort behind a helmet; but more important is the mental switch that needs to happen to let officers be aggressive enough to go in and save lives," DeAndrea states. By experiencing as many different scenarios as possible, officers create pathways in their brain that allow them to be free thinkers and adapt to real-life active shooter scenarios.

     Coleman stresses such training is readily available for the departments that seek it. "There are training videos, simulators and training experts," he says. "Even if you only send one person to this type of training, and they come back and share it with the rest of the department, you are better off than you were."

     Active shooter situations, in everywhere from small towns to big cities, highlight that it's no longer a question anymore of 'if' an active shooter scenario might strike a community, it's a question of 'when.' As Callisto points out, "The Virginia Tech incident puts an exclamation point on the fact that this is critical training for law enforcement."

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