First-responders prepare for the worst
By Hannah Kohut Correspondent September 6, 2013 5:03PM
An Oak Lawn police officer instructs a volunteer who acted as a "victim" during a simulated school shooting at Oak Lawn Community High School. | Hannah Kohut~For Sun-Times Media
Oak Lawn Community High School recently was the scene of a simulated school shooting, part of a full-scale exercise to test the community’s first response capabilities.
With more than 350 participants, the high school was treated as an active crime scene, complete with blank gunshots and staged victims, 30 of whom were designated as casualties.
“Our objective was to test police response to an active shooter at a large venue or school, to test firefighters and paramedics on triaging more than 100 multiple trauma victims and to test the hospitals’ abilities to not only handle the number of patients, but to reconnect families with the victims,” Oak Lawn Police Commander Art Clark said.
The drill, which Clark said was 10 months in the making, was made possible through a federal grant. The drill brought together 25 south suburban police and fire departments, Advocate Christ Medical Center, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, the FBI and other state and federal agencies.
Administrators from 14 other south suburban high schools were on-hand to observe the drill.
Students from Great Lakes Naval Station volunteered to be “victims” and were scattered throughout the school’s south gym, screaming and dodging “dead” bodies as they ran for help.
Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Michael Kaufmann said the volunteers helped create a realistic scene for the police.
“You have to train for a situation like this,” Kaufman said.
“We were given classes by Northern Illinois University police officers about their experiences from the (February 2008) shooting,” he said.
“Our (police) goal is one thing: go straight to the person with the firearm,” he said. “Because of the size of our police force, we can respond with at least four officers in under two minutes, and have neighboring police departments on their way immediately.”
While some two dozen police officers ran down hallways looking for the “shooter,” Kaufmann said a large challenge was identifying the bodies and keeping track of survivors.
“With every kid having a cell phone now, kids could be running out the doors and we have no idea of knowing what happened to them,” Kaufmann said. “We have to work with the schools to make sure every student is accounted for.”
At Advocate Christ Medical Center, Kaufmann said the “victims” were brought in to test the hospital’s ability to treat the patients and counsel the families.
“They had clergy there who would be on hand in case of a real shooting to console family members,” Kaufmann said. “The hard part, at the school, would be having parents identify their deceased children, either through photographs or being taken inside the school.”
When it comes to identifying the victims in case of an actual shooting, Dr. Sanford Block, director of disaster response for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, said his team would have a huge responsibility on their hands.
“This kind of an effort gives us more training on evidence recovery in a mass shooting incident,” Block said. “This is an important case and the most important part is recovering the identity of the casualties. Fortunately, this is a situation we don’t readily get.”
Emotionally, Clark said, the likelihood of a school shooting happening in Oak Lawn was tough to conceptualize.
“These police officers, most of them are fathers and have kids that come to this school,” Clark said. “We recognize that, unfortunately, this is the world we live in and that things happen.”
“We want to be prepared by doing drills like this,” he said. “Giving everyone the opportunity to make mistakes now when real lives aren’t on the line.”