By LIBBY CLUETT
Shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday, numerous city and county first responders sped to Mineral Wells High School – from the Mineral Wells Academy parking lot – to work on emergency preparedness efforts.
Just like a school holds fire and tornado drills, the Mineral Wells Police and Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Departments, along with the Mineral Wells Independent School District, coordinated the exercise to evaluate emergency response and operations plans in a simulated active-shooter incident, somewhat similar to the December tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“We are always thinking about and working on safety and security for our students and personnel,” said Mineral Wells ISD Superintendent Gail Haterius. “This morning’s emergency drill is the second exercise that Police Chief Dean Sullivan has organized involving our school district and city and county emergency responders to help all of us sharpen our processes and procedures to deal with emergency situations.”
The exercise involved varied local resources that would be likely respond in the event of an actual emergency in which a shooter attacks a MWISD school.
“Today, Lieutenant Randy Wright of the MWPD conducted an active-shooter exercise with other complicating factors added during the exercise,” explained Haterius. “The Mineral Wells Police Department, the state police officers from [Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway], the Palo Pinto County Sheriff Department personnel, EMT’s from the MW Fire Department and troopers from the Texas Highway Department all assisted in the drill,” she explained.
After “shots” were fired by an individual inside the high school, a first wave of Mineral Wells Police officers drove up and cautiously, but swiftly, entered the building. The next wave included two MWPD criminal investigators who arrived, geared up in bullet-proof vests and who assessed the situation and ran inside, with handguns drawn. Next to arrive were two park police, followed by two state troopers, the PPCSO tactical team and, lastly, three city ambulances and a fire engine.
Most armed law officers, deputies, troopers and rangers were clearly marked with yellow tape, denoting they did not have live ammunition.
Otherwise, the drill was intended to be as real as possible.
The “armed” police had to clear the area and set up a perimeter to allow emergency medical responders access to numerous downed high school students and staff to conduct triage and trauma medical care.
Eventually, they evacuated the teachers after they were locked down.
School resource officer Sherri Ford called the scene inside “Intense.” She described the situation where her colleague portrayed a shooter and fired off a blank gun.
A handful of students were on hand to aid in the simulation.
“It was really scary, it was terrifying,” said Junior Kara Salisbury, who said she was in the A Hall. “I got ‘shot’ in the back and then the cops came in, looking for the shooter.”
Salisbury said police found the shooter “eventually, because he was hiding.”
Amy Thomas said although this “was just a drill, it was nerve-wracking.”
For Hannah Laigle the drill was “really scary” and was “organized chaos.”
“It was uncomfortable,” noted student Mark Glover.
Others called it “fun” and said it seemed very professional.
According to MWPD Chief Dean Sullivan, the exercise not only included finding and disarming the shooter and caring for wounded, but also looking for secondary threats, such as backpacks potentially containing improvised explosive devices. Not only did this year’s Boston Marathon bombing and the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 include IEDs, but he said Fort Worth’s Wedgewood Baptist Church shooting included a secondary and tertiary threats.
Sullivan recalls the scenario well – he was there. He said the shooter left behind a pipe bomb in a hallway and had a vehicle full of explosives.
“IED’s not a new phenomenon,” he said, citing a 1927 massacre in 1927 in Bath Township, Mich., when a disgruntled school board treasurer, defeated in an election, killed 38 elementary school children and six adults and injured at least 58 others. Sullivan said Andrew Kehoe put dynamite in the Bath Consolidated School’s boiler system the night before setting off the deadly explosion. But he had other devices as well.
“Officers, fire and EMS have been trained to look for secondary devices [and learn] that secondary devices could get you,” Sullivan said.
He said Tuesday’s drill was under “safe and controlled conditions” and they were tripled checked for extra precaution.
“Today’s exercise went well. It did identify some operational gaps, both anticipated and unanticipated,” Sullivan told the Index. “Those unanticipated things made this scenario more lifelike.”
He said communication was an issue with the radios. While people inside could hear each other, according to one deputy, those outside couldn’t hear radios on the inside very well.
“In an emergency, communication is absolutely essential,” he noted. “That’s one of the areas I anticipated might be exposed and sure enough.”
“It did expose weaknesses in some areas that we will address moving forward,” Sullivan said of this and other issues. “This is a good next step [and provides] a platform to build upon, moving forward for all the stakeholders in this exercise.”
“I, personally, appreciate all of the first responders and also our high school faculty, staff and administrators for participating in this exercise,” Haterius said of the exercise.
“We learned quite a bit just by going through the process,” she added. “We discovered some areas that we want to improve in order to increase the overall security for our schools.”
“You have to take advantage of the opportunity when you have time to prepare,” Sullivan said. “Many communities think about preparation in the midst or after the fact. We have a formidable plan if and when a catastrophic event occurred in our area.”
Sullivan cited the Wedgewood Baptist Church shooting and the 2000 Fort Worth tornado, as two crises he has been involved with. He said he has been able to share some of his personal experiences, as well as “a significant amount of training on incident response and command.”
The bottom line for local first responders is to “be as best prepared as we can be with our limited skill set.”
The next steps include debriefing, which they did as a group Tuesday after the exercise and, Sullivan said that individual entities will debrief their groups.
“Everyone will be reviewing their individual organizational plans and comparing them to the county emergency management plan.”
Sullivan said they will plan for another exercise, perhaps toward the latter part of the coming school year.