Anatomy of a Tragedy

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Storm Lake safety leaders stage a drill with a simulated shooting spree in the Middle School

"This is too real," said one teenager, painted in broad swatchs of rust-hued imitation blood. "This could happen."

This has happened. And that's why Storm Lake is doing this.

Tuesday night, dozens of police and sheriff's officers, rescue EMTs, firefighters and emergency leaders took part in an intense drill that simulated a horrific shooting spree incident at Storm Lake Middle School - an eerily familiar scenerio in the wake of tragedies like the Columbine and Virginia Tech killings.

The realism was lost on no one - the responders to the mock shooting were deadly serious and efficient in their efforts, sweeping the school with handguns and rifles drawn. Even among the students victims, there was no messing around - everyone had a job to do, and everyone was aware why it needed to be done.

Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser says it is important to test the readiness of all emergency response teams, although there is no reason to expect that the community is any more likely than any other to see such random violence.

Prosser began the drill by tripping the fire alarm near the Middle School front entry. One purpose of the exercise was to judge the response time, techniques and communications of the various departments involved - with leaders observing and taking notes that can be used to make improvements and fine-tune strategies in preparation for what they hope never comes - a large-scale disaster or tragedy.

The police entry team officers arrived quickly, soon joined by sheriff's deputies, to sweep the building. Although the building's numerous hallways and classrooms, many of them dark, challenged the searchers, they took only moments to uncover and disarm the pretend "shooter," portrayed by a woman hidden with a "gun" behind a teacher being held "hostage" in a small classroom.

Once the building was secured, attention turned to over 20 teens who served as volunteers to play gunshot victims, scattered around the school, marked up to indicate their wounds. The 50-plus volunteers coordinated by ISU Extension and the 4H program played their roles with abandon - the teens plaintive cries for help ringing out through the building. One feigned shock, wandering the building and forcing police to restrain him in order to help. A triage area was set up on the school lawn, and those playing the roles of the worst hurt were taken by gurney to ambulances which relayed them to a waiting Mercy Air Care helicopter that had landed on the west side of the school grounds.

There, air ambulance pilot Greg Stanzel viewed a scene he is all too familiar with.

Stanzel was among those responding to the tragic scene at the Omaha Westroads Mall last December, when a 19-year-old gunman killed eight people.

"There were about 150 law enforcement cars that responded, plus all the other vehicles. It was even worse than a school like this, because there were so many stores with so many places that had to be checked and secured - a gunman could have been anywhere, victims could be anywhere. That was about as scary as it gets." About 15 victims of the violence had to be attended to or rescued, he said.

Just the night before the Storm Lake drill, there was also a teenage shooting victim in Sioux City, he said. The Mercy helicopter averages between two and three calls a day.

"It is sad to have to even think about doing a drill like this," he said of the Storm Lake simulation, "but I think it's a good thing that they are doing it."

After the helicopter departed, attention tunred to Buena Vista Regional Medical Center, also part of the drill, where the readiness of the emergency facilities and staff was also put to the test dealing with the "injured" brought in.

The massive numbers of emergency personal responding, including many off-duty people, drew plenty of attention. The drill was nor pre-announced to the public or most of the officers, in order to get a true picture of the response potential. Signs were posted on the both ends of the street accessing the Middle School shortly before the exercise, in hopes of avoiding alarm to passers-by.

Among those taking part in the drill were the county Emergency Management Office, school administrators who served as observers, fire department, ambulance crews from BVRMC, Sioux Rapids and Schaller, Alta police and first responders unit.

Annually, a large-scale drill is held to simulate a major tragedy, ranging in the past from the aftermath of a "tornado" to a gun-toting student at the university.

"Each year forst responders plan these types of drills to test our staff, policies and response protocols," Prosser said. "We plan for the worst and hope for the best."

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