The scenario that played out at Charles Russell Elementary School on Tuesday morning wasn’t real, but it was frighteningly plausible.
Dozens of first responders from multiple law-enforcement, fire and emergency medical services agencies participated in a full-scale exercise designed to gauge their readiness to react to a school shooting situation.
The make-believe situation involved three shooters armed with automatic weapons entering the school by force, seizing control of all entrances and exits, pouring gasoline in the cafeteria floor and then calling 911 with instructions for the police not to respond or they would burn down the school with everyone inside it. One of the perpetrators then lights the gas. (A smoke machine was used to simulate the fire.)
Beyond that, no one knew how the drill would play out. The actors playing the gunmen were instructed to challenge all police officers and to not comply with any of their verbal commands. The officers’ responses were determined solely by the actions of the players.
The final death toll — again, make-believe — was seven, including two of the three shooters. The third gunmen surrendered after officers burst into a classroom where he was holding seven hostages, including a teacher’s aide, with a gunshot wound to the chest.
That perpetrator — played by a FADE Task Force officer who didn’t want his name published — said he gave up because he was out of ammo, and because he didn’t want to endanger the lives of the hostages.
He also admitted he probably should have been “dead” long before the officers stormed the room. Holding up the protective face shield he wore during the exercise, he pointed to a blue splotch in the right eye area where Catlettsburg Assistant Police Chief Cameron Logan nailed him with a paintball while the two were exchanging gunfire down a hallway.
In addition to the seven casualties, there were 15 injuries, ranging from critical to non-life-threatening, Boyd County EMS Director Tom Adams said. Part of the exercise involved setting up triage area outside the school so the wounded could be assessed prior to being transported for medical treatment.
Those who played victims had highly realistic “injuries” applied by Gregory Priddy and Tracey Crawford, the EMS liaisons at Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital and King’s Daughters Medical Center, respectively.
Kristy Bolen, coordinator of the Boyd County Medical Reserve Corps, played the role of a 7-year-old who killed in the incident. To prepare her for the part, Priddy and Crawford gave her a bullet wound near the base of her neck and dusted her face with powder to give her skin a pale appearance.
Bolen played her part convincingly, lying motionless in the hallway near the school’s entrance.
Well, make that nearly motionless.
“My leg fell asleep at one point and I had to move it,” she said.
Even though she knew the events were not real, Bolen said she found it “unnerving” and could feel herself tense up when the weapons started firing inside the building.
But, as the mother of a 6-year-old, she said she found it comforting emergency responders were training for a situation involving an attack on a school.
No actual weapons were allowed in the training area. Police officers had to check their duty weapons at a station set up at nearby AK Steel Sports Park, and even civilian participants were searched prior to being allowed to enter the school. Officers participating in the exercise were given AirSoft guns that shoot plastic pellets.
According to Capt. Jamie Stephens, commander of the Ashland post of Kentucky State Police, the reason for the ban on actual weapons in the “hot zone” was that every year, police officers are killed by live fire during training exercises. Requiring everyone to check their guns was a precautionary measure aimed at preventing such a tragedy, he said.
Stephens said he was pleased with the outcome of Tuesday’s exercise.
“Anytime you get this many people and this many agencies working together, it has to be a success,” he said. “And it showed no matter what challenge is placed on these law-enforcement officers, they’re ready to take care of it.”
Stephens said the lessons emergency responders learned during the exercise could be applied to other active-shooter situations in public venues such as shopping malls and movie theaters.
Ashland Independent Schools Safe Schools Coordinator Mark Swift said the district practices lockdown procedures at all its school consistently, but Tuesday’s drill kicked the realism up several notches.
“It was a glimpse of reality” for school personnel who took part in the exercise,” he said.
KENNETH HART can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2654.