Western Pa. officers train for 'active shooter' situations

Mary Pickels
| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 6:39 a.m.

Recorded screams, shouts and wounded “hostages” were among the distractions 34 regional law enforcement officers encountered on Wednesday as they role-played an active-shooter situation at the Somerset County Technology Center.

It was training Somerset County Sheriff John A. Mankey never dreamed of as a former state trooper.

“Back then, we (state police) never thought of someone going into schools and killing people execution-style. That's why this training is held, to keep us up to date,” Mankey said.

Wednesday's training was coordinated by the Somerset County Department of Emergency Services. Funding for the Louisiana State University course instructors, materials and training equipment was provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

Joel Landis, training officer with Somerset County Department of Emergency Services, said participants included municipal police officers, state troopers, park rangers, detectives and school district police officers.

He did not have a roster of each participating agency.

“Current events show that we have a trend with active shooters,” Landis said.

Throughout the afternoon Wednesday, teams of hostages, shooters and law enforcement officers rotated in and out of simulated scenarios. They were armed with training handguns, and their “ammunition” was rubber rounds.

The arms of a few “shooters” bore the telltale red sting mark of a round having hit home.

“This is lifesaving. We never know when anyone might encounter active shooters. ... This teaches us how to deactivate scenarios with the least amount of loss of life. It's probably the most positive training I've participated in,” Mankey said.

Events such as the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn., when Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot and killed 20 children and six staff members, have changed the way first responders handle active shootings, Mankey said.

“I think what I learned today was primarily the speed factor. In my old days with the state police, we were taught to talk to people and calm them,” he said.

“Now you get in, move, stop the action,” Mankey said.

Shawn Kovac, superintendent of the North Star School District in Boswell, Somerset County, played both a hostage and a shooter in the training exercise.

“It's very intense. As superintendent, I'm responsible for developing our emergency response plan,” he said.

Kovac plans to evaluate everything from furniture placement in classrooms — so as not to impede first responders — to location of students during lockdown situations.

“I have hunted all of my life. I've had firearm training. I probably jumped 3 feet” at the sights and sounds of a classroom shooting, Kovac said.

He said he plans to look into holding an active shooter drill for his own district's teachers and staff.

Kovac said he learned that in a lockdown situation where police are required, students could be confined to classrooms for hours.

He said kits containing water, food rations and emergency medical supplies will be in every district classroom by fall.

“You pray to God nothing like this will ever happen in our classrooms. It's sobering and scary, but necessary,” Kovac said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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