01/08/2008

N.C. active shooting drill 'as real as it gets'

By Jane Stancill
The News & Observer

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The chaotic scene Monday at UNC-Greensboro seemed scary-real.

Shots rang out on the clear sunny morning. A hooded gunman was seen lurking in the basement of a dormitory. Another took tennis players hostage. The media swarmed.

The whole scenario was fake, but it was good training for police and university officials who hope they never face a day like Monday.

More than 120 law enforcement officers and 85 role-players took part in a full-scale active shooter exercise, one of the first such drills on a university campus, according to officials from EnviroSafe, a company from Graham that coordinated the event.

The exercise was planned before the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that claimed 32 victims in April. But the drill took on new significance following the massacre, which changed the way college campuses plan for safety and prepare for the worst.

Monday's mock shooting drew more than 100 observers, mostly law enforcement from a half-dozen states looking to improve campus preparedness back home. They gathered in an auditorium, where they took notes and viewed the action filmed by cameras across campus.

Just after 9:30 a.m., gunshots and sirens pierced the tranquillity of a campus without students, who were still on holiday break.

The scenario, kept secret from the participants until Monday, was confusing and constantly changing. According to the fabricated chain of events, a disgruntled former boyfriend of a university employee burst into an office on campus, where he started shooting. The shooter also had an accomplice -- his brother, who ran out of the building and took hostages near a tennis court. The gunmen shot with blanks, so the sounds were authentic.

SWAT teams from the campus police and local police agencies arrived in force. They used paintball-like guns in the exercise. "Put your hands up now!" they yelled before they took the first shooter down.

According to the scenario, four people were killed and seven injured. False information was thrown in to complicate the situation. A professor with a garden hoe was reported to be a gunman. A construction worker using a nail gun drew reports of gunshots at another location. The role-playing worker was fatally hit by the responding officers.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Pat Sullivan and her staff huddled in a room to figure out what to do. They quickly decided that a lockdown was impossible. They crafted multiple messages to warn the campus of the trouble via e-mail, text messages and the campus radio station.

In another building, campus officials dealt with logistical challenges — how to deal with an overwhelming number of calls from families, how to keep students safe inside.

A mock news conference was held. The Red Cross even showed up to feed the participants.

Most people don't realize how complex such a response is, said Lt. David Enter of the Furman University police department, who had driven four hours from South Carolina to watch the scene unfold in Greensboro.

"You hope and pray those situations will never occur," he said, "but you've got to train for them, you've got to prepare for them, and you've got to help educate people who are going to be involved in it."

An after-action report will critique the university's handling of the event, which was purposely scheduled when students were away. Conducting a full-scale drill with thousands of students on campus would be disruptive and dangerous, said Jamie Herring, assistant police chief.

"I think this is as real as it gets," he said.

Copyright 2008 The News & Observer

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