In life-or-death situations, adrenaline mercifully relieves us of the burden of thought, allowing instinct to take over. For most of us — except Summit County’s many extreme sports enthusiasts — it’s something we rarely experience. We owe that in large part to the men and women who expose themselves to such danger every day.
But when the chips are down, and our emergency responders shelve “flight” for “fight,” they rely not just on instinct but also training for almost any possible emergency. On Sept. 28, Summit County’s emergency responders will be preparing for one the worst possible scenarios: a mass shooting.
More than a hundred police officers, sheriff’s deputies, EMTs, fire fighters and other first responders from jurisdictions across the county will respond to a simulated active shooter event Wednesday morning at the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, then pursue the gunman to the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge.
“We certainly hope that a mass shooting never takes place in our community, but we have to be diligent about preparing for this type of event,” interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “These exercises give us the opportunity to ensure that we have the right systems in place to collaborate with one another in response to major disasters and emergencies that affect multiple jurisdictions.”
Colorado is no stranger to mass shootings, which have become a macabre reality of modern life. One of the nation’s most traumatic killings happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, claiming the lives of 15, including the perpetrators. In 2012, a gunman brandishing an assault rifle killed 12 moviegoers at a theater in Aurora, helping spur lawmakers to pass a controversial gun control bill in 2013.
The simulation is set to start around 9 a.m. when a sheriff’s deputy will start firing blanks into the air inside the hospital. Then, roughly 35 volunteer actors, some with gory make up and fake injuries, will serve as victims or distressed loved ones, allowing first responders to practice scene security and crowd control.
Then, the shooter will flee to the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge, where the simulation will end after the shooter takes his own life. There will be a press conference at around 2 p.m., where county spokeswoman Julie Sutor will take questions from the media.
“Statistically, that’s how most of these situations end,” said undersheriff Joel Cochrane who helped plan the scenario. “I don’t want to set up a gun battle or anything.”
Cochrane said the main point of the exercise is to practice coordination between different agencies and establishing a unified incident command.
“These are really granular tasks,” he said. “They’re what the public don’t (sic) see: all the synchronization that happens on a daily basis. This is just on a much bigger scale.”
These types of exercises — for which departments will sometimes hire “crisis actors” trained to adapt based on first responders’ behavior — have grown popular around the country, particularly in schools. Some consulting services even teach students basic self-defense and disarmament techniques.
Summit County lacks the extensive medical infrastructure of urban areas, where shootings more commonly occur. That makes it all the more important to practice how to adapt when that infrastructure is strained by a mass-casualty event, defined in Summit County as involving 10 or more immediate-need patients.
Sometimes, it can be the smallest components of this mass response effort that need refining. Last year’s simulation, for instance, provided much in the way of organizational learning, but also revealed how tiny details can accumulate — things like extension cords or even a flag for behind the press podium.
For Cochrane, these details are tiny links in a massive organizational web, and the active shooter scenario gives him and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office the opportunity to examine every nut and bolt of their emergency response plan.
The fake blood, mannequin corpses and blank rounds aren’t just for dramatic flair — Cochrane said the realism is important for first responders and especially medical personnel.
“The scenario isn’t designed to frighten or anything,” he said. “It’s just important to make it as real as possible.”
Cochrane and his team at the sheriff’s office have been putting together the plan for six months. This Wednesday, they’ll finally get to see it in action.