The South Puget Sound Community College was swarming with police officers, firefighters and emergency vehicles Wednesday, and those passing by may have heard the occasional gunshot.
But don’t worry. It was only a drill.
More than 30 law enforcement agencies and fire departments gathered at the school’s campus early in the morning for the regional active shooter drill. All of the usual police and fire departments were present — Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater, Yelm, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and Thurston County fire districts.
Neighboring departments, state agencies and even Joint Base Lewis-McChord firefighters participated.
“It’s great to see everyone out here, fire and law enforcement working together,” said Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza. “You wouldn’t have seen this 10 years ago.”
Olympia Fire Department Cpt. Jim Brown said this type of response to an active shooter event arose in the wake of recent mass shootings in public places — especially the July 2012 shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.
“What we learned is that a lot of people end up dying because they weren’t getting medical attention quickly enough,” Brown said. “We’re trying to change that.”
In the past, he explained, firefighters and paramedics waited until the situation had been resolved before entering the building to assist victims. Now they enter “warm zones,” areas that have been cleared of visible threats, to patch up and evacuate the wounded.
Brown taught Olympia firefighters the basics of such responses in training sessions over the past few months.
On Wednesday, firefighters and law enforcement officers put those skills to the test during a simulation that started with the hijacking of an Intercity Transit bus. The faux shooters boarded the bus at an on-campus stop, attacked bus passengers and caused the bus to “crash” into South Puget Sound Community College’s horticulture building.
From there, the pretend shooters entered the building, attacked some pretend students and staff members, then spread out into other buildings.
Thurston County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Cliff Ziesemer said that in emergency situations, Intercity Transit dispatchers can hear audio from buses. During the simulation, the driver activated the bus’s emergency mode, and dispatchers called 911.
A few minutes later, police officers arrived on scene and removed the wounded passengers. They then entered the horticulture building and established that the shooters had moved into other buildings. They declared the building a warm zone, and medic teams began to respond and help patients.
While entering the warm zones, the firefighters were accompanied by armed police officers who would provide protection should a new threat emerge.
The victims, played by 75 volunteers, had fake wounds and wore fake blood. They screamed and moaned as they were carried out of the building on large, plastic, foldable stretchers. Victims with minor injuries helped their critically injured counterparts.
The victims were taken to temporary triage areas and laid on large tarps.
The volunteers didn’t portray dead bodies. That job was left up to plywood cutouts strewn in and between buildings.
After clearing the first building, they moved on to others and repeated the process until the drill ended.
The response to the simulated shooting was orchestrated by a unified command unit — meaning, incident commanders from both fire and law enforcement sat side-by-side in a van, communicating directly with one another to prevent miscommunication.
Law enforcement and fire departments communicate on different radio frequencies, which has caused mix-ups during actual active shooter events.
Olympia police Lt. Paul Lower was one of the law enforcement officials working in the unified command unit, and he said the process went smoothly.
“I think that went really well, that we worked really well together,” Lower said. “We’re out there all the time working the roads together, so I think Olympia fire and Olympia police have a good relationship.”
During a March 24 training session, Brown explained that the response to the Aurora shooting showed the need for a unified command unit. Wires were crossed, and ambulances weren’t able to reach patients.
As a result, police officers began transporting patients to hospitals in patrol cars, Brown said.
“There were a lot of well-intentioned people out there that day, and I wouldn’t want to be put in that position,” Brown said. “But mistakes were made. We don’t want to be making those mistakes.”
Local fire departments are also trying to provide firefighters and paramedics with the proper equipment to enter warm zones and help patients. Brown said the Olympia Fire Department recently purchased eight specially made ballistic vests, each equipped with $1,200 in equipment — disposable stretchers called “mega movers,” shears, bandages, tourniquets and colored ribbon used to mark patients with different types of injuries.
The Lacey Fire Department recently invested in similar equipment.
For now, Olympia’s vests will be transported to scenes in command vehicles, Brown said. But the goal is to eventually have enough vests that every firefighter will grab one at the beginning of his or her shift and stow it in an engine in case of an emergency.
“I feel like if I’m putting on a vest and going into a warm zone, I’m risking a lot,” Brown said. “We’re definitely increasing our risk, but we’re doing it in a calculated manner with the right equipment.”
Another tool Olympia firefighters have: battlefield-style medical training.
Olympia paramedic Shane Dobson, who served as a military medic in Afghanistan, helped design the fire department’s ballistic vests, based on his experience. At the March 24 training, he showed other firefighters how to use hemostatic dressings, Israeli bandages, chest seals and tourniquets.
He also explained that many things attached to the vest can be used as something else in a pinch. For example, plastic packaging and medical tape can make a functioning chest seal.
“You need to be prepared to improvise if you have to,” Dobson said.
After the Wednesday drill, law enforcement and firefighters gathered to discuss what went well and what didn’t work.
But Lower said the consensus was that the simulation went well. Agencies were able to cooperate and work well together, just as they would in an actual active shooter situation.
“I think we found a couple bugs in the system, but they were nothing that shocking, nothing that we couldn’t figure out quickly,” Lower said.