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Vickroy: Training for day that hopefully never comes

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:06AM



First came the gunfire. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Next, screams and the crackle of radios. “We have new intel. The shooter is on the second floor, at the west end of the building.”

Then officers with guns drawn moved in three-man teams down the locker-lined corridors. When they encountered the shooter, they took him down, cuffed him, secured their surroundings and prepared to do it all over again.

This was just a drill, but its purpose was anything but contrived.

As horrifying as December’s mass shooting was at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, that was not the reason for Friday’s Live School Shooting Drill at Mae Jemison Elementary School in Hazel Crest.

No, for that we can credit the Columbine High School tragedy that occurred 14 years ago this week.

“We’ve been doing drills like this for years,” Hazel Crest Police Chief Tom Folliard said. “Since Columbine anyway.”

What was different about Friday’s drill was that it marked the first time police departments from different towns would train together. About 30 members of the Hazel Crest, Country Club Hills and Markham police forces participated in the daylong drill, which was run by Brian Bush and Adam Grant of the Hazel Crest police as well as Raquel Dawson and Tyrone O’Neal of the Markham department.

“If, God forbid, there was a school shooting here in the south suburbs,” Folliard said, “there most likely would be a multi-jurisdictional response. It makes sense for us to train together.”

The Rapid Response Training focused on patrol officers as first responders, the people most likely to be first on the scene.

Folliard said the thinking used to be for patrol officers to wait for SWAT teams to arrive before entering a live shooting site. Today, he said, “We know the longer we wait, the more likely there will be more victims.”

“We work on the same radio band. So when an incident comes in everyone can hear it,” Country Club Hills Police Chief Mark Scott said. “Any officers in the area would respond, even if the incident took place in a nearby town. This is all about working in unity. We all should be on the same page.”

The officers trained under different scenarios. Sometimes the shooter had to be shot down, while other times he had barricaded himself alone in a classroom. Each scenario called for a different reaction from police.

And after each scenario was played out, the four instructors offered constructive criticism and potentially life-saving advice.

In one instance, the shooter surrendered, and his hands were cuffed behind his back. The officers had frisked him quickly but didn’t realize he had hidden a gun under his shirt, stuffed into the back of his pants.

“They won’t miss that again,” Grant said, after the “shooter” was able to retrieve the weapon. “The idea is to create the mistakes here so they don’t happen in real life.”

Emergency medical training candidates from South Suburban Hospital played the role of bystanders and, in some instances, casualties.

Several people witnessed the day’s events, including Hazel Crest Mayor Robert Donaldson and Kimako Patterson, superintendent of Prairie-Hills School District 144.

“It is unfathomable that something like this could happen in real life,” Patterson said. “When you think of schools, you think of innocence.

“It is important that our staff is aware of how to respond to situations like this. These kinds of drills put us in a better position of ensuring that our children and staff will be safe and secure.”

Patterson said she remembers hearing the news about Sandy Hook.

“I was crying. It was absolutely horrific, an experience nobody in education should have to go through,” she said.

Brian Zarnowski, deputy police chief in Country Club Hills, said school shootings are not new, but Sandy Hook highlighted the importance of fast police action. Zarnowski, whose wife works in a grade school in Manhattan, said “it’s important that everyone be trained in how to react.”

Hillcrest High School Principal Renee Simms said schools, too, have their safety plans registered with their local police and fire departments.

“Students at Hillcrest come from three different communities, so we share our safety plan with all of those municipalities,” Simms said.

Kenneth Scott, principal of Mae Jemison School, said it was definitely odd to see the two-story building flooded with police officers.

“But there have been a plethora of school shootings,” he said. “It has changed the paradigm on how we look at school safety.”

Folliard said the tactics that police used inside the halls and classrooms of the grade school are the same that officers would rely on if there were a shooting inside a hospital or a department store or any large populated place.

When asked what people who find themselves in a crossfire can do to increase their chances of survival, Folliard said there is no single answer.

“I’d say, stay down and get out,” he said.



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