Ever since the massive Columbine school shooting incident in 1999, and more recently, the Newtown, Conn. shooting in 2012, schools around the country have had to train for a theoretical emergency in which a disgruntled shooter is in or near a school. Most districts hold periodic “lockdown drills” in which their students take cover in an emergency. Last week, Hudson County held a more involved training exercise for emergency responders.
On June 23, the North Bergen Police Department, in conjunction with the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office, the North Bergen Office of Emergency Management, and the New Jersey State Police conducted what they said was the largest active shooter drill in county history, at North Bergen’s Robert Fulton School.
“We know that studies have shown over the last decade that at least a quarter of all active shooter incidents occur in an educational environment,” said North Bergen Chief of Police Robert Dowd, speaking at a press conference outside the school after the drill. “The idea is to put our people under the most stress we possibly could, to make it as realistic as possible, make the conditions as horrific as possible, so that we could practice for and prepare for a day we pray never comes.” The FBI said that both 2014 and 2015 saw 20 active shooter incidents nationwide, more than any two-year average in the past 16 years.
What was learned
Dowd said that his early takeaways are that “some tactics we found to be excellent. I found some very young officers today that surprised me and I found their tactics to be very sharp. I found some to be a little rusty; our training division will work on that.” (Media outlets were not allowed inside the school during the drill.)
“You have to be prepared,” said Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who watched the drill via a camera system at the Board of Education. “The world is what it is today. It’s a very dangerous place. If you’re not prepared, you going to be caught if something serious happens. I believe the police learned a great deal about situations like this.”
“We know that studies have shown over the last decade that at least a quarter of all active shooter incidents occur in an educational environment.” – Robert Dowd.
The officers had GoPro cameras attached to their heads during the drill, which allowed the mayor to notice that there are no cameras in the stairway entrance. The township will work to rectify that in the future. Video from the event was also disseminated to various news outlets and will be used in a future training video for officers.
Jacquelin Hernandez, a student at North Bergen High School, played a student who had a leg wound. She said that people besides the officers learned from the drill.
“It helps students know what they’re doing in these situations and helps everyone cooperate together to get everyone out safely, and nobody injuring themselves,” Hernandez said. “I feel like the procedure was very good and very organized.”
One woman who participated as an injured teacher sustained a real injury during the simulation.
“I was running to safety outside of the building and me and a fellow colleague wiped out on the curb,” said Heather Zahn, a fourth-grade teacher at Robert Fulton, who suffered a minor sprain in her leg. “It’s just seeing the realistic side of it.”
Christian, another participant and senior at North Bergen High School, said the drill made him think about reactions to active shooter situations.
“I felt in danger, because number one, if you’re running outside the school, you can get shot in the back,” he said. “Your life is on the line; when you run, you’re taking a risk. My life felt—if you’re safe in the classroom doesn’t mean you’re going to be entirely safe, because there’s a lot more to it.”
Lending a hand
To increase the realism, officials gave the students and teachers scripts and directed them to flood the North Bergen Police Department and Board of Education with phone calls. Officers purposely did not know of the exact scenario until shortly before the drill began.
Different scenarios played out for the drill, each featuring no more than two gunmen on any of the school’s floors at any time, according to Dowd.
“They had to make quick decisions,” Dowd added. “So they had to decide if it was a shoot/don’t shoot type of scenario. It was not just simply you saw someone, you fired a weapon.”
Numerous agencies lent their resources to the drill, including the Union City and West New York police departments, the West Orange Police Department, North Bergen Emergency Medical Services, North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, Palisades Medical Center, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense at Picatinny Arsenal.
U.S. air marshals played the invading shooters. Planning for the event involved meetings through the past year, Dowd said.
All law enforcement used non-lethal training ammunition guns in the exercise.
West Orange Police Lieutenant John Morella planned out the scenarios, according to Dowd. The U.S. Army was also consulted on the scenarios.
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