Shots rang out at Smith-Cotton High School on Monday morning. Then came the sirens and screams.
The empty school building hosted Sedalia and Pettis County emergency agencies for a true-to-life active shooter response exercise. The Sedalia Police Department commanded the scene while the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office, Sedalia Fire Department and Pettis County Ambulance District assisted with response.
Representatives from the Sedalia-Pettis County Emergency Management Agency, Missouri State Highway Patrol and Pettis County Fire Protection District attended the exercise and observed the scene.
SPD Sgt. John Comfort played the role of an active shooter in plainclothes. He fired multiple shotgun blanks outside the school before entering through the front doors.
About 35 members of Sedalia School District 200 staff volunteered to act as victims of the shooting, giving the scene a touch of reality with pools of blood, gaping injuries and cries of pain.
School Resource Officer Sgt. John Cline, of the Sheriff’s Office, helped organize the exercise as responders reacted to the unfolding scenario. None of the agencies involved had a script advising what surprises would come next.
With only their active shooter response plans for guidance, law enforcement, firefighters and medical personnel navigated the carnage of the simulation.
“In the low probability that these incidents happen in Sedalia, I want us to be as prepared as possible when they occur,” Cline said. “The skills that our first responders perfected today and the relationships they had today, all of those carry over to other incidents in Pettis County.”
Law enforcement dispatch received a scripted 911 call for “loud noises in the high school” and alerted participating units. SPD officers were the first to arrive, flying through the city streets with sirens wailing. Two more SPD cars and a Sheriff’s Office deputy followed almost immediately after.
Officers bolted through the front doors, followed the sound of gunshots and reached the shooter within a minute. From the time the officers were notified of the call to the moment they engaged Comfort, only three minutes had passed.
“We will find and stop the threat however that is,” Police Chief Matt Wirt said. “That person may give up. That person may take an action we have to stop, but we will find and stop the threat as fast as we can.”
In Monday’s scenario, the officers found and figuratively shot the suspect in a north hallway, as he was still firing bullets south of the school’s performing arts center. Once they neutralized the threat, the officers worked to secure the building, gather information about the suspect and protect medical responders who rushed inside.
Volunteer actors with fake injuries had already begun running toward the parking lot. The Sedalia Fire Department pulled up after the officers in front of the school with a fire truck and engine. The Pettis County Ambulance District arrived with multiple vehicles and ambulances.
PCAD responders and firefighters, all of whom are certified emergency medical technicians, began treating the wounded. PCAD established triage zones while firefighters carried immobile victims out to the front parking lot.
“The biggest thing for my firefighters that I was proudest of today is we’ve put them in a position that we’ve not practiced before,” Fire Chief Greg Harrell said. “We do car wrecks and medical emergencies, but we don’t typically get into situations where there are people with guns.
“We’re going to have to be a part of that situation. It’s not only a law enforcement situation. We want to become an asset that helps law enforcement do their job.”
Bloodied victims screamed in pain as medical responders placed them in one of three triage sections. Actors in the green section had cuts and other minor injuries. The yellow area signified more serious wounds while a red flag marked the most critical patients.
The Smith-Cotton theater department added a dramatic flair by adding cuts, bullet wounds and fake blood to the actors. The same theater volunteers poured blood pools throughout the hallways and classrooms.
Cline said these measures were intended to add extra stress for the first responders. Exercise organizers threw another curveball by pulling the school fire alarm, challenging communications and raising the intensity.
After all the victims were evacuated, medical responders bustled around the triage zone to treat five people with serious injuries and 10 more with smaller wounds, Cline said. At least two victims were declared dead by the end of the exercise.
“When we train our folks, we don’t want to overwhelm them to the point to where the training becomes a failure,” Cline said. “We want to train to win. We looked at a number (of wounded) that would stretch our capacity and would require our fire, EMS and law enforcement to call for additional assistance.”
As SPD chief, Wirt served as the designated commander of the scene. All other agency heads followed his decisions and received his clearance for response plans.
The exercise tested active shooter strategies that each of the agencies created at a tabletop discussion in April. The local departments also followed standards from the National Incident Management System for their individualized plans.
Monday’s exercise put those plans into action, and they held up well in the scenario, Cline said. Observers with first-responder experience graded each agency’s performance in the completion of critical tasks. They will turn in their evaluations by the end of the week, which Cline will compile in a full report.
“It’s tough to get (agencies) together because of all the people you’d have to take off-duty, but it’s always a positive when you can accomplish that,” Harrell said. “This has taken us all farther down the road to being better prepared.”