Police, fire and EMS stood silent, listening to the 911 call: Multiple victims hit with an explosion.
The first officers on the scene learn a second device is behind the train station, rigged to explode. Gunmen, and more victims, are inside.
They breach the building, and the gunmen open fire. Tracers slice the air, fatally striking one officer before others can stop the attack.
“Officer down! Officer down!” The call goes out to 911, then to response coordinators organizing a multi-agency task force to rescue and treat the wounded.
Then another call. Another attack launched in a different location.
What started as an armed assault on one target is now a “complex coordinated attack” involving multiple attackers and multiple locations, said Harry Jimenez, senior law enforcement consultant with C3 Pathways, an emergency preparedness company.
It’s in those chaotic moments that law enforcement, EMS and firefighters already dealing with one attack might freeze, unsure how to respond, he said during a recent virtual simulator training series in Chapel Hill for EMS, fire and law enforcement from Orange County, UNC, Durham County and Virginia.
The Active Shooter Incident Management course, organized by Orange County emergency management coordinator Kirby Saunders, offers escalating situations, all acted out in real-time using live-action and computer gaming simulation software.
The software is gaining ground as a cutting-edge, cost-efficient way to train local responders. It allows them to perform a full range of duties, from answering and sending 911 calls and driving to the scene, to assessing and treating victims, interviewing witnesses, and stopping and arresting suspects.
It’s a chance to experience the chaos of an attack and ask questions before making critical decisions, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said.
“We see incidents that can involve an active shooter,” he said. “We also have incidents that can involve a complex coordinated attack, which is designed to deplete the resources of the agencies that are responding, instill fear in the responding agencies and the public at large, and also confuse the normal training methods for response.”
The goal is to get in and resolve the situation within 15 minutes, Jimenez said. While it took Orange County crews 40 minutes when they started, he said, they were meeting their goal before the course was over.
“We’re closing that time gap, which can save lives,” Blackwood said.
It wasn’t the first time they have practiced rapid deployment and full-scale crisis responses, Orange County Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes said. But this offered a more extensive experience that wasn’t dependent on the weather or on the availability of a location, he said.
The cost-savings is another benefit, Jimenez noted. They didn’t need extra people to cover shifts or act as “victims,” or use costly equipment. They also avoid personnel fatigue and injuries, protect sensitive tactics, and avoid unneccesarily alarming the public, Blackwood said.
“We have been very fortunate to have worked together throughout the years,” he said. “This gives us a chance to fine-tune it.”
The increased collaboration was another benefit, Emergency Management director Dinah Jeffries said, from EMS crews learning to drive firetrucks to deputies getting more experience with injury assessment and victim rescue. It also was the first time 911 communicators got to participate, she said.
“This is very much engaged, and the simulation makes it very real for everybody,” Jeffries said. “Watching everybody actually engage in their role — they have to do it — that’s a little different, because typically we’ll break up in groups and other classes and discuss.”
The cross-training — and the opportunity to repeat scenarios with different responses — was invaluable, Chapel Hill police Capt. Danny Lloyd said.
“We often train with just law enforcement, with just fire personnel,” he said. “To have us all training on the same incident, we have a chance to see how our job impacts those around us, and vice versa, and to share that information and (learn from it) ... instead of assuming that we’re going to do something that’s going to work out well for them.”