A joint Criminal Mass Casualty Drill in Sequim on Sept. 28 brought a dozen organizations together in a unified effort to prepare for what happens in the event of a horrifying scenario: a school shooting.
The Sequim Police Department, Clallam County Sheriff’s Office, Sequim School District, Clallam County Fire District 3 and the City of Sequim came together to lead the drill at Sequim Middle School, which included numerous other law enforcement and emergency management groups.
Representatives from the Washington State Patrol, Customs & Border Patrol, Clallam County Emergency Management, the Lower Elwha tribe and Sequim’s Community Emergency Response Teams were on hand to observe and participate in the drill. Members of the National Park Service and the Department of Corrections were on hand as well, both to observe and to provide security.
According to Sequim Police Department Darrell Nelson, who helped organize and run the drill, several other agencies from the region were also interested in participating but couldn’t free up the staffing or logistics to get involved.
Also participating in the drill were a number of staff and students from Sequim Middle School who had volunteered to be actors playing specific roles, several other actors from the area who would serve as concerned parents trying to get to their children and one who served as the attacker.
In all, about 250 people were participating in the drill at three different sites — the middle school, the city’s Emergency Operations Center based at the Clallam County Transit Center on Cedar Street, and a reunification center at Sequim Community Church.
Only those at the middle school knew exactly when the drill was starting, with others only informed to be ready for the drill sometime on Saturday, according to City of Sequim staffer Jason Laihle.
An inside view
As the one who typically covers school-related events for the Sequim Gazette, I was assigned to cover the drill, but in speaking with Sergeant Nelson ahead of the event, my role somewhat changed. I would still be covering the event, but I was also asked take part in the drill, playing the role of a reporter covering the story.
After sitting through morning briefings and chatting with representatives of the various organizations involved, I found myself outside watching police officers set up their vehicles in staging areas at either end of Hendrickson Road around the middle school, waiting for the call.
Around noon, the loudspeakers around the middle school crackled into life: the school was in lock-down. The drill had begun, and somewhere inside was someone posing as a shooter.
Quickly the lights started springing to life atop the police vehicles at either side of Hendrickson Road. Law enforcement didn’t swarm to the school at once — in a normal day, police officers would likely be spread out throughout the city, not clustered around the school one hundred yards away — so dispatch “released” officers one by one based on where they most likely would be when the shooting started and how long it would take them to reach the school.
First, an SUV hopped the curb to give the officer inside quicker access to the situation. Out came Kindryn Leiter, the police department’s School Resource Officer, a familiar figure at the middle school. Wearing her tactical gear and carrying a rifle — a training rifle for the drill rather than one carrying live ammunition — she entered the school.
After Leiter entered, students started coming out another door running for safety. Officers responding to the scene stopped and searched them to make sure none were the shooter trying to escape, while others went in to support Leiter.
Seeing this playing out from just a hundred or so yards away was a little difficult. My wife and I recently became foster parents to a middle school student, and seeing her peers coming running out of the school while heavily armed and armored officers converged on it, I couldn’t help but feel a taste of that same panic any parent or family member would feel in an actual school shooting or emergency.
Soon came what Nelson had earlier in the day called a key cog in the drill: the Rescue Task Force (RTF), a group of specially-trained fire district paramedics. In previous active shooter situations, paramedics have set up in a “safe zone” outside the building or even in a “beachhead” that had been secured inside it, but in order to more quickly reach victims and give them proper treatment the RTF are equipped with the same protective armor that police officers are wearing. They were sent into the building with police escort to find, triage, treat and recover the wounded.
After the drill, Sequim Police Chief Sheri Crain said she was happy with the actions of her officers, and the joint effort of the RTF.
“We anticipated (the RTF) to be a more difficult element to (the drill),” Crain said. “But both sides know their work so well that it went smoothly.”
Center of operations
Meanwhile, the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was swinging into action. Once the call of an active shooter went out, city officials converged on the transit center meeting room to convert it into a hub of activity, bringing communications and information systems online while reports on the situation at the middle school came in.
I arrived at the EOC about 20 minutes after the lock-down was called and police started moving in on the school. Upon checking in I was informed that Barbara Hanna, the city’s Communications and Marketing Director who also operates as the Public Information Officer during emergency operations, was in the EOC’s initial situation briefing and would be out soon. I wasn’t allowed into the EOC itself, and was asked to wait in the transit center’s foyer.
In the end, it would be another 15 minutes or so before I finally saw Hanna and received the initial report: there had been a shooting event at the middle school, with no further details available. Families and citizens were advised to steer well clear of the area while first responders dealt with the situation at hand.
Several minutes later, Laihle emerged from the EOC and informed two “parents” — the aforementioned actors — who had arrived outside the locked doors to the transit center that EOC personnel were still working on locating a reunification site for the staff and students evacuated from the building.
That was the last contact the media had until after 1 p.m., when Sequim School District communications director Hanna McAndie confirmed that there were injuries being tended to onsite, and several of the injured had been transported to area medical facilities.
I was joined by representatives from KSQM shortly before that, and together we waited for more information, not hearing anything until being told at about 1:40 p.m. that the reunification site had been communicated to parents but wasn’t being released publicly.
Behind the curtain
That would prove to be the last update I would receive as part of the drill. Shortly after that food arrived for the EOC, the veil was broken, and we were invited inside to partake and watch the later stages of the drill unfold.
Inside, we were able to see the event timeline as based on communications to the EOC, including relevant decisions made there. A casualty count would be posted as we were eating, though we learned later on during the debriefing that the EOC had actually received that information some time before it was posted.
By the time we were inside the EOC, the drill was starting to wind down — only a few updates were put up on the information board after our arrival inside, and most of the activity centered around various officials following up on details about the incident and working out the logistics of what comes next.
Finally, the all-stop for the drill was called just before 2:30 p.m., and everyone finally started to relax a little.
After things had settled, those inside the EOC came together to talk about the drill and how things went. A drill observer, Larry Nickey — a veteran of EOC and Incident Command who oversaw rescue and recovery operations after the Oso landslide in 2014 and at a number of wildfire operations around the country — spent some time sharing his evaluations and thoughts about how Sequim’s EOC ran.
By and large, Nickey said he was impressed with what he had seen, though he did have several recommendations, largely based on things that he mentioned that most newer EOC groups never think of until they’re in a real situation.
“No one ever thinks of making sure there’s enough port-a-potties on site until there aren’t,” Nickey said at one point, drawing a laugh from the city officials present.
The city’s EOC didn’t really do anything wrong according to Nickey’s debriefing, but there were several things that they can do to be better prepared in the future.
“As is the goal of every drill, we learned a lot” city manager Charlie Bush said.
“Overall I think we functioned well, but we have a punchlist of things to improve on. We really took what (Larry) said we can work on to heart.”
Bush pointed out the city’s communication and teamwork as two big strengths during the drill, but said that he and his team had identified several areas to address for the future.
He also mentioned that as part of the city’s 100-year lease with Clallam County Transit for the transit center where the EOC is based, the city will be making several upgrades to the meeting room aimed at enhancing the speed and functionality of the EOC’s setup and operations.
“The faster we can get the EOC up and running the better,” Bush said. “In these kinds of situations where we need it, we can’t spend a bunch of time getting it set up. Every second counts.”
At the end of the day, from watching the entire process it felt like by and large everyone had a good idea of how to handle an emergency situation. Everyone involved admitted that they still have things to learn, especially in areas of inter-agency cooperation.
Chief Crain described that best: “We (the police department) know what we’re doing,” she said in the week after the drill. “(The) fire (district) knows what they’re doing. The school district and city know what they’re doing. What we need to work on is all the spaces in between where that all comes together.”
Still, local authorities that would be involved in a situation like this all did their jobs simply and effectively. There were bumps in the road and lessons learned, but they were lessons you’d rather authorities learn in a drill instead of in a live situation. For example, Vince Riccobene, a former SMS principal and the district’s drill organizer, noted in an Oct. 7 school board meeting that he discovered while planning the drill that the district did not yet have a formalized reunification plan for an emergency, something that has since been corrected.
Any emergency situation is going to be stressful and chaotic, but drills like this help to manage that somewhat by giving the involved staff at least some kind of familiarity with their role and tasks.
Anything that can help smooth out the adjustment to figuring out what to do in an emergency like this will help speed up the resolution of that emergency, and that’s only a good thing.
This is also not the last emergency drill that Sequim first responders and authorities will be a part of. While no plan for another drill on the same scale as this one is in place right now, Crain said Sequim would be participating in the Cascadia Rising drill currently planned for 2022, a follow-up to the drill from 2016 that had authorities preparing for what to do in the event that a geologically expected massive earthquake dubbed as “The Big One” hits.
Authorities in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, British Columbia and several federal agencies will be involved in that drill, and Sequim will have another taste of how to prepare for an emergency then as well.
Until then, each agency involved in September’s drill will continue to evaluate their performance from it and plan and train for how to be better in the real thing. Hopefully they never have to use those skills, but they’ll still be prepared just in case.
Conor Dowley is a reporter at the Sequim Gazette.