Coalition of local law enforcement, first responders prepare for the worst

SANDY CREEK — State and local law enforcement departments on Tuesday geared up to secure the hallways of Sandy Creek Elementary School as part of an active shooter drill directed by the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office. 

Lawmen from the United States Border Patrol, the New York State Police and the police departments of Fulton, Oswego, Phoenix and Central Square joined forces with first responders for “initial contact and rescue” task force teams to eliminate a live threat. Victims, played by the men and women of the Syracuse Area Disaster Drill Actors group, were strewn throughout the hallways and required immediate medical assistance — often with screaming and grasping at the ankles of the officers.

“This is the most realistic training you are going to get,” Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton said, noting that officers and the “shooter” wielded live weapons that fired rubber bullets.

Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Gaita directed the drill and issued commands to the “initial contact” team tasked with securing multiple points of control and neutralizing the active shooter threat.

The “initial contact” team entered elementary school from a side door as the shooter patrolled a main hallway. Police neutralized the threat after an exchange of gunfire and cleared nearby classrooms.

As victims’ injuries piled up, a “rescue” task force team comprised of law enforcement and emergency medical services (EMS) technicians escorted victims to classrooms serving as casualty collection points, which Gaita explained are hub areas to assess and treat injuries

“The initial contact team takes care of the threat, they set up the perimeter and they call for the rescue task force,” Hilton explained. “The rescue task force are paramedics and first responders escorted by other armed personnel who come in to get the walking wounded out and start care, and eventually get everyone out to ambulances standing by.” 

Hilton praised the actors’ “phenomenal” work, noting the aggressive use of fake blood and heavy makeup work. 

“When the real deal happens, this is how it is going to go down,” the sheriff said, adding that bringing different agencies together adds to the realism. “You won’t be going in with people you work with. You’re going in with people you don't know, people with other agencies and you are just going. It is realistic in that way.” 

The reasoning behind the joint exercise, Hilton said, came from reviewing after action reports for school shootings and identifying a need for a coordinated response from emergency response crews.

“If you look at the after-action reports for these incidents, when the police arrive they concentrate on eliminating the threat, so the fire departments are waiting to go in and the EMS are also waiting,” the sheriff said. “So rather than standing by idly out there waiting for us to clear the building, we tasked them here in Oswego to be responsible for setting up command posts and communication and let the police end the threat and organizing ambulances and EMS”

Hilton also said the drill also served as an opportunity for county officials to know what the response from local agencies will be like in case of an active shooter situation.

As for areas of improvement Hilton said all agencies will review the results of the training and request feedback.

“You can always improve on it and we'll have after action meetings and we'll get everyone together and asked them what we can do to make it more realistic,” he said.

Oswego County EMS Coordinator Renee Fox called the drill an “excellent training opportunity.” 

“Any opportunity we get to work with multiple disciplines is an excellent training opportunity, because when bad things happen, it is law enforcement, it is fire, it is EMS all together working to aid in that situation,” Fox said. “Any time we get to cross disciplines when we train is very valuable.”

Fox also said the joint exercise will help EMS technicians deal with life-threatening injuries.

“There are a lot of injuries where time is very critical,” she said. “This is a great improvement for us in being able to go in with law enforcement because the time that we save being able to go in quickly is incredibly important for people who have significant bleeding injuries. Being able to go in the area and stop that is going to save lives.”

Oswego County Fire Coordinator Don Forbes said the training will help fire departments and law enforcement get on the same page.

“The biggest thing is if something actually happens, we know what law enforcement will expect from us and we know what to expect from them,” Forbes said. 

The sheriff’s office will host eight training sessions in July and Hilton said departments such as New York State Police have expressed interested in furthering the sessions beyond this summer.

The Oswego County Sheriff’s Office this fall will place armed officers inside three school district buildings as part of a new program known as special patrol officers (SPO). Hannibal, Sandy Creek and CiTi BOCES’ Mexico campus will participate in the SPO program, according to county officials.

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