An Active Shooter: Preparing For The Worst And Hoping For The Best

Jan 7, 2013

Students flee a make-believe active shooter in a classroom as a state trooper monitors the exercise. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
Credit Chris Jensen, NHPR

Following the shootings at Columbine in 1999 the New Hampshire State police developed a free course to help local police departments face such a deadly challenge.

Now, after the killing of 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Ct. school, some police departments are showing more interest.

NHPR’s Chris Jensen attended one course over the weekend in Bristol.

Here’s the sound nobody wants to hear for real in a school.

Sound of teens screaming and running….

This was during a training drill.  But if - against all odds – it happens for real and you are a police officer it isn’t the ideal time for on-the-job training.

That fear is what attracts some police departments to a course being offered by the state police on dealing with what’s called an active shooter, says Sgt. Robert Terhune, the chief instructor and a member of the state police SWAT team.

“In an active shooter situation officers need to respond as quickly as they can, locate the threat and neutralize that threat.”

Members of the Bristol police department search for a make-believe active shooter. Their weapons fire plastic bullets. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR

An active shooter means there’s can’t be any delay. If somebody takes a hostage and things are relatively calm, then there’s time to call a SWAT team.

But Terhune says police aren’t normally trained to deal with active shooters.

 “They never really had to deal with this type of room-clearing exercises, shooting on the move, working together as a team. All of these things become critical in being able to successfully resolve an active-shooter situation.”

And that’s what Terhune is teaching officers during Saturday’s course at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol.  Terhune directs the action from the hallway.

Nearby is Bristol Police Chief Michael Lewis who says his department planned to take the active-shooter course, oh, sometime in 2013.

But one day in December changed that.

“Once Connecticut happened we reached out to the New Hampshire State Police SWAT team and put it on the front page of things we needed to complete for 2013.”

Friday ten Bristol police officers spent the day in the classroom.

Saturday is the day for a series of active-shooter exercises.

What they are learning is how to work in a team to search a building when somebody is waiting to ambush you.

It’s a daunting blend of beat-the-clock, shooting skill and a chess game without rules.

Four Bristol police officers wait to run through another exercise. They’re standing outside the school’s main office – where a sign reads “Kindness Matters.”

They’re all carrying handguns or rifles that fire – pretty accurately – small, plastic pellets.

Terhune is briefing them.

“Okay, ten minutes ago an individual came into the school armed with a handgun. Teachers confronted him. He got into a physical confrontation with them. Knocked a couple of teachers to the ground and then fled down one of the hallways in the school.

“They’ve heard several gunshots just as you were pulling up. You need to go and find him. Whenever you are ready go ahead and begin.”

Man’s voice: “Ready, forward….”

Then, they’re off to search room after room.

Somewhere ahead is one – maybe two – state troopers playing the role of active shooters.

Meanwhile, up on the second floor – in room 208 – eighteen students and a teacher are waiting to – once again – do their part.

They’ve agreed to help out – in exchange for nothing more than a pizza lunch and an unusual experience.

Time after time they play frantic students escaping an active shooter.

One of them is Sara Vassy.

“It is kind of scary to know that could be something that actually happens to our school. But it is good that it is fake and we’re taking the precautions.”

When the school’s fire alarm goes off the students stampede from the room and down the hall, .

They swarm around the Bristol police officers, making their search more difficult.

Sound of screaming students with alarm in the background. Alarm fades….

Kristin Swass is one of the Bristol police officers taking the course.

“Your heart is going 100 miles an hour, the world just becomes a pinhole, sensory overload, but you just calm yourself down and make sure that person is stopped, that threat is stopped.”

The officers are in a four-person team. Each faces a different direction. Looking for threats.

At the end of a hall a shooter appears.

Sound of shots…men yelling.

Then, there’s a nasty surprise.

A second active shooter – a young woman with a shotgun – attacks them from an adjacent classroom.

But this group of Bristol officers has been training all day.

She’s shot.

The first active shooter at the end of the hall is also whacked by the plastic pellets. He’s done.

And that exercise is over.

Troop F’s Terhune says such training is even more important for smaller departments such as those found in the North Country.

That’s because officers from three or four towns would rally to face a threat and they have to know how to work together.

They all need to be on the same tactical page, he says.

For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen

Chris Jensen for NHPR