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Fighting "house to house, room to room"

by Jeff Horwich, Minnesota Public Radio

February 26, 2003

This month Minnesota quietly debuted a new weapon in the war on terrorism when Camp Ripley's "tactical live fire shoothouse" hosted its first round of training. The shoothouse is a fully enclosed, bullet-absorbing building, where law enforcement officers and soldiers can train for indoor combat. It was a useful skill long before the world was focused on terror at home and war in downtown Baghdad, and the special forces of the Minnesota State Patrol were the first in line for training.

Camp Ripley, Minn. — The inside of the new live fire shoothouse is a surreal place. A roaring ventilation system sucks up lead and the other chemicals produced by gunfire. The walls are white and pockmarked; black ceiling fixtures hide cameras that see everything. Aside from a lack of windows, this section is laid out like a one bedroom apartment: The kind of place one might conceivably hole up with a hostage.

Six members of the State Patrol Special Response Team burst in with a chorus of intimidating shouts, guns drawn. They secure their target, a paper silhouette in the back room, and call "all-clear." They opted to forgo the live ammo while a reporter was in there with them, but typically there are bullets flying.

The Special Response Team is a group of 17 elite troopers. They're trained for crowd control, protecting the state Capitol and the governor's mansion, and SWAT-team situations like hostage-takings and barricaded suspects. West Metro Trooper Thomas Sarych says navigating small rooms and tight angles is not something you want to do without plenty of practice.

"A lot of it is just movement technique, making sure of what you're pointed at, as far as your weapon, being aware of where your partners are," Sarych said. "Because this is as realistic as it gets. I mean you've got live rounds so you have that element of realness." A combination of state and federal money built the two-story, $1.7 million shoothouse. It's more detailed than similar facilities in Hutchinson and Annandale. Three sections comprise the 2,200 square feet. There's the apartment, a retail store, and a third section laid out like an office, complete with cubicles. Two-inch rubber mats over a half-inch of steel plating cover the walls, to flatten and absorb bullets.

In a control room a thousand yards away, officers with joysticks control 12 subdivided televisions. Forty-one cameras record every corner of the three sections. Before exercises start in all three sections, a supervisor announces, "We're going hot, eyes and ears."

Lieutenant Cheri Frandrup commands the special response team. From the control room, she watches for dangerous crossfire situations as her men contend with targets triggered by motion sensors.

"They have cables that run across the different rooms, and ... targets that run along these cables, and they have pop-out targets that will all of a sudden pop out right at 'em," Frandrup says. "You make the shoot, no-shoot decision based on the threat level."

Speakers on the wall convey troopers going all-out to treat the scenarios seriously. The relative quiet of the control room erupts in burst of voices yelling, "Police, police, get down, get down!" followed by a round of gunshots. The small teams, trailed by a medic and a safety officer, pause to debrief after each run-through.

The shoothouse is actually a remnant of a larger plan, which included a simulated airfield that troops could practice taking over. The state budget situation has put the rest of the plan on hold. But Camp Ripley already has another indoor-outdoor training range set up like a small village. Army Sergeant Michael Agens, who runs the automated target systems here, says the addition of the shoothouse could make this an attractive training spot in the months to come.

"With terrorism nowadays there's going to be a lot more urban warfare," Agens says. "House to house, room to room is what it's going to come down to."

The next booking at the shoothouse is a National Guard infantry unit from Mankato.

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