Area first responders and the Sedalia School District 200 conducted a training crisis response exercise Tuesday morning.
The Sedalia Police Department, Pettis County Sheriff’s Office, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Sedalia Fire Department and Pettis County Ambulance District facilitated a full-scale drill for a fictitious active shooter situation from 8 a.m. to noon Tuesday at Smith-Cotton Junior High School.
School Resource Officer Sgt. John Cline, of the Sheriff’s Office, helped organize the exercise and hosted a debriefing before the event. None of the agencies involved had a script advising what was going to happen once they went into the situation.
The purpose of the exercise was not to test people but to test their plans, tactics, techniques and procedures in a no-fault learning environment, according to Cline.
“This is about getting about getting better, getting stronger, and being stronger together and is testing our processes,” he said.
Portraying the active shooter in plain clothes, Sedalia Police Sgt. John Comfort fired shotgun blanks outside the school at 10 a.m. before entering the building through the front doors and firing more blanks.
Law enforcement dispatch received five scripted 911 calls from volunteers at Sedalia-Pettis County Emergency Management Agency reporting the incident. Dispatch then relayed the information to agencies via normal communication channels like they would during a real incident.
Three Sedalia Police units consisting of three officers were the first to arrive in the first four-minute period. Officers racing inside the west side entrance were met with the sound of cries of pain and terror from volunteer mock victims. Twenty-five Sedalia 200 staff members portrayed the victims and were placed on all three floors of the school, some with fake blood and injuries ranging in severity.
“As soon as I heard the first shot, my hands started shaking and my adrenaline started going. It was a rush,” said crisis actor Cathy Matheis, who had fake gunshot wounds to the arm and leg and was not able to walk.
One of the changes from last year's exercise was the presence of armed security officers at the school. First responding Sedalia police officers Neva Overstreet and John Fellows found Smith-Cotton Junior High security officer Kathy Stark laying on the floor of the main floor after being “struck” by the suspect and they quickly dragged her outside to safety.
Stark had called for a lockdown over her radio after hearing the first shots. She then confronted the suspect where they both engaged at the same time and Stark was “struck.”
“It was intense. It made you think, ‘Did you do it right? Did you utilize your training?’ I wouldn't have done anything different,” Stark said. “I still would have confronted the suspect and tried to stop the threat. You never know if it was real life if I would have slowed him down or not slowed him down.”
Other first responders began to arrive in a “staggered” pattern over a 10-minute timespan, according to Cline, to simulate actual response times. Law enforcement members began to rush into the building, guns drawn, and started securing floors and ushering out victims. SPD Chief Matthew Wirt, SFD Chief Greg Harrell, and PCAD EMS Chief Eric Dirck worked together outside to coordinate the response efforts.
Cline planned a final surprise for the responders: having a school administrator engage in a physical altercation with the suspect on the third floor. By the time responders arrived on the third floor, the suspect had been shot during the altercation by his own gun and had been disarmed. The responders had to determine who the “bad guy” was, according to Cline.
“Ultimately, our officers were able to determine who the good guys were and who the bad guy was and take care of the bad guy. None of our good guys were injured and our good guys didn't use force on anybody that didn't need it. I think all in all it was a success,” Cline said.
After the suspect was neutralized, law enforcement worked to usher in PCAD and firefighters to treat the wounded and secure floors. Medical personnel established a triage point where they began to usher victims and carry the wounded on stretchers. The suspect was also triaged for his injuries like the others. There was one that was fatally injured and several others with injuries ranging from superficial to serious and life-threatening, according to Cline.
“They triaged those folks to determine the level of the injury and then they used that information to figure out who they were going to treat first, who needs to go first and who can wait for a little while...” Cline said.
“The intent there is we gave enough information on the injuries to our EMS folks where they were able to apply their triage information and figure out who needed to go first and who could wait.”
The total time from the 911 call to the time when the suspect was detained was within 15 minutes, according to Cline.
Harrell and Wirt agreed the exercise had gone well. Both said they are looking at incorporating some of the things they learned during the exercise to their larger-scale incident plans when working together.
“It definitely is demanding. I think that the coordinated effort and the relationships that we develop with the fire department and PCAD through this has strengthened us on other things,” Wirt said. “Just other situations that we have so there’s things to learn from it that are beyond just the active shooter part of it. It’s that working together and facilitating things well.”
Cline said the plan is to continue the exercises each year, going through all of the schools and making each simulation different and more challenging.
“I think it went well. Any time you get multiple agencies and multiple disciplines together like that it’s always a complex response but all in all it went very well,” Cline said.
“I think that there was a lot of positives, a lot of things that we learned. We identified a few weaknesses that were going to address but all in all, I think it went well.”