On Tuesday, more than 240 emergency responders, law enforcement, counselors, doctors, nurses, school personnel and volunteers from 20 agencies ran themselves through a mock community nightmare. Sunnyside Elementary School was, for the day, the site of a training exercise centered on a situation too horrifying to fathom but too frequent to ignore: a mass shooting involving schoolchildren. In carefully considering all elements associated with such events, the inter-agency effort to test and hone the community’s ability to respond readies Durango for the unthinkable. Doing so positions law enforcement, medical providers and schools to handle disasters as effectively as possible.
That is not to say the exercise was easy – to construct, to participate in, to manage or to witness. The shooter, played by La Plata County Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Bender, strode through the school’s halls firing blanks from a rifle and two pistols. Twenty-six volunteer “victims” reacted to this staged horror, with predetermined injuries of varying severity. Law enforcement responded en masse, storming the school to first tend to victims and then address the shooter. The wounded were taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center for treatment. In all, six – including Bender – were “fatalities.” It was gruesome.
But in running through such a scenario in as realistic a manner possible, the team – convened by Kathy Morris, regional Safe Schools coordinator for San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services – seized a critical opportunity to hone its collective-response protocol while neutralizing the emotions that a real-life event disaster would trigger. Durango Police, Colorado State Patrol, Durango Fire Protection District and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office coordinated their response. That in itself is a valuable exercise. Medical and school personnel put themselves through their protocols’ paces and were thus able to identify and close any gaps.
In doing so, the agencies have poised themselves to respond cohesively and comprehensively to such events – violent or otherwise – that too often unfold in our public spaces. Their severity can be limited by the extent to which those tasked with responding can contain the chaos, assess and treat the casualties, impose needed order and disperse information. That can, in turn, diminish the emotional and physical fallout from such tragedies. Dealing with them head on by convening such a wide-ranging team of agencies to face the most abhorrent situation – one that combines brutal violence and young children – is an essential if difficult endeavor.
This sort of effort is applicable to a wide range of possible events. While the armed-intervention aspect may be limited to violent acts, most of the same organizational and communication skills practiced Tuesday would apply equally to a plane crash, a major industrial accident, wildfires or any number of natural disasters.
The team of agencies worked for months to coordinate the event and plan their various roles in responding to it. The relationships and roles built during that process are invaluable – as much or more so than Tuesday’s drill. It was an exercise in community safety that provides welcome assurance that we are prepared for the worst. Let us hope this carefully constructed team must never be deployed.