Way back when, after 9/11, our city’s Emergency Manager received a grant from Homeland Security to conduct one of the first terrorist attack simulations at a high school and, for the first time, test Unified Command with police, fire and education.
We had previously conducted an active shooter simulation with law enforcement. That had been a Columbine type sim, with kids, teachers, administrators, classified staff and SWAT teams. We had learned an unbelievable amount that led to new trainings for both schools and law enforcement. So we moved ahead with this exercise in order to better inform our work in keeping students, staff and schools safe.
I should note that a simulation is not completely scripted; it’s a lot of pushing dominoes and then evaluating what happens. What could possibly go wrong, especially when including 2,000 teenagers, a hundred or so teachers, and a couple hundred parents?
Nine months of planning and preparation — a lot like giving birth — and we were almost ready.
We had met with students, teachers and parents, given them their roles and responsibilities, as well as the opportunity to opt out of the simulation. The same thing happened with elementary and middle schools in the surrounding neighborhood. Very few opted out, which made the event much more realistic. Of course, we had mental health counselors available during and after the event, although they were not needed.
On the school side, we were adamantly opposed a script having a terrorist coming onto a campus; that would give too many idiots too many ideas. So we settled on a substitute teacher, which was a safe choice as subs always get blamed for everything anyway. The sub was assigned to a science class and then lost it because the lesson plan called for dissecting frogs.
I’d probably lose it too, even though I’m not particularly fond of frogs, but then I don’t carry a gun so my response would have been in the neighborhood of getting queasy and turning green.
Our sub was scripted to have belonged to an organization opposed to dissecting frogs which qualified as a terrorist organization, go figure, so we were covered under the grant requirements. The sub was actually a former SWAT officer with a disarming smile which was helped because he was going to be “killing” three different teachers before shooting a young female drama student who tried to escape. And yes, he used very loud blanks to make it all the more realistic.
One of the educational objectives was to see if our students could successfully take charge of the classrooms without an adult after the shooter moved on (the “dead” teachers being comfortably positioned on the floor and trying hard not to nap). The kids did exceptionally well.
Our young drama student, ecstatic over her lead role, was going to be “killed” in front of audience of city council members, county supervisors, numerous school superintendents, police chiefs and other invited VIP guests who then got to watch the sim unfold while being very aware of our young student-actress sprawled out on the ground twenty feet in front of them.
Personally, I think it’s very helpful to unnerve leaders every once in a while and we did accomplish that. They were all pale and visibly shaken by the time the exercise was completed.
Our primary objective, however, was testing Unified Command, wherein the people in charge from the participating systems — in this case, police, fire, education — worked together to problem solve issues with the lead agency in charge of rendering decisions. While most citizens would assume that, oh, police, fire, public health, mental health and schools all happily work together, it is not often the case so this sim would be very interesting in testing the newly federally mandated “unified” approach.
First, however, we had to bring all the participating police responders, fire/rescue teams and school administrators together to go over the scope of the sim, without giving away the details of what would get thrown their way.
As we were planning the prep meeting, it occurred to the fire and police commanders that if either one of them, or their chiefs, told the group to not hi-jack the script, the other department would never listen. Fire obeys fire; police obeys police. Evidently, though, they were all still terrified of English teachers because I was handed the task of reinforcing that they all stay on script.
That completed, we were ready to go.
To be continued…