Preparing for the unthinkable
Area law enforcement practice shooter exercise at Sunset Elementary School
The screech of the fire alarm and the screams of wounded civilians filled the air as three Airway Heights police officers walked through the hallways of Sunset Elementary, their guns aimed forward. As they reached the end of the hall, the officers entered classroom 405 and neutralized the shooter who had entered the building and opened fire on civilians.
This was the start of the live shooter demonstration at Sunset, April 10. The purpose of the drill was to test the new national response models for neutralizing a shooter and providing rapid care to the injured during these type of situations.
In addition to the Airway Heights police and firefighters, law enforcement and fire departments from Cheney, Medical Lake, Spokane Fire District 10, Fairchild Air Force Base, Kalispel Tribal Police, American Medical Response (AMR) and Eastern Washington University participated in the exercise.
Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett, who had received the call of a suspect gunman at the school and set up an command post for the demonstration, said the department normally practices these type of scenarios, but this was the first time working with several outside units and attempting the new standards.
After the shooter was neutralized, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) came in and tended the wounded, who were taken to the casualty collection point.
After the drill was finished, officers and officials went to the gym for a debriefing. Officers discussed some of the issues during the drill such as communication between the units on the interior and exterior, and getting victims to the warm zone outside. EWU police officer Bryan Dornbos commended officers and firefighters for getting "their hands dirty."
"This thing is sort of chaotic and communication will always be an issue in that type of environment," Dornbos said.
Sgt. Kelly Hembach of the Cheney Police Department said the demonstration went well.
"It was outstanding, especially when you can make it that realistic," Hembach said.
Civilians portrayed the victims in this exercise. Jessie Kunz-Pfeiffer, who was outside room 405 during the first scenario, had a wound on her neck.
"I was kind of scared when I heard the gunshots," Kunz-Pfeiffer said. "It was interesting to see how this all works and kind of fun."
The second scenario was similar to the first, with the exception of an added shooter.
After the school went into lockdown, victims took their places and began screaming for help. Officers quickly neutralized the first shooter before heading to the 600 wing. After they subdued the second shooter in a classroom, a third gunman came from one of the faculty bathrooms and opened fire on the officers. Once officers took him down, EMTs and firefighters tended to the casualties.
Bennett said the law enforcement side used a two-channel radio for the second scenario, which had cleared up some of the issues during the first exercise.
Detective Kelly Justice and Cpl. Leland Varain were two of the five officers who had neutralized the second and third gunman. Justice said the second scenario was "almost the worst case scenario" and the live shooter drill taught them to be prepared for different situations.
"It goes to show you that there is always something to be learned," Justice said. "There is definitely no place for complacency."
Al Stover can be reached at email@example.com.