First responders tested

School shooting simulation intense

“This is only a drill” was written across a monitor in the front office of Hahnville High School Friday, but the day’s events still reflected the worst nightmare of any parent, student, teacher or administrator.

The hope is that St. Charles Parish never sees a real-life incident like the scenario portrayed in last week’s intense training exercise.

It begins when two gunmen storm the campus and everyone involved has to determine if they’re prepared to handle it.

The training exercise was held as a collaborative effort with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office and St. Charles Parish Public Schools. It is intended as a measure to allow officers, fire personnel, medical responders, parish workers, St. Charles Parish Hospital Emergency Room, and school personnel to better respond to a mass casualty event, such as a school shooting or terror attack.

This was the fifth time the exercise has been held at a St. Charles Parish school facility, and the first time it has been held at a high school. It is typically held every two years.

The scenario Friday involved two “gunmen” on campus who create a horrific scene of casualty and injury. Emergency responders arrive on campus in response to address the danger, clear the buildings, and treat the injured. “Bombs” were placed in different areas on the campus, including one strapped to one of the shooters, while there was also a hostage scenario.

Lt. Marlon Shuff of the Sheriff’s Office said this year’s training focused mainly on medical response to a serious incident, a shift from previous exercises.

“The tactical response of how our officers arrive, making trips to the school, and neutralizing a threat, we’ve practiced that for years and years. We’re good at that,” he said. “So the national trend now is, once there’s no longer a threat, you have to deal with the medical response. You have a lot of wounded. You have injured students and officers have to transition into life-saving mode.”

To prepare for that, law enforcement personnel took a training course held over a three-week period at J.B. Martin Middle School.

While the agencies involved in the drill already have procedures in place for a school shooting or other emergency event, going through a realistic drill is the best way to train for such a tragic scenario.

St. Charles Public Schools spokeswoman Stevie Crovetto called it an opportunity to execute and live out the plans and contingencies the school system has implemented for such a worst case scenario.

“We have so many emergency plans and procedures that have been developed with the assistance of so many different people, but until you’re truly in that environment and can walk through those steps, only then can you really identify areas that may need some revisions or be improved upon,”

Crovetto said. “They say there’s nothing more valuable than real life experience. We hope that we would never face this kind of situation, but it’s as close as we can get to really be prepared for that.”

More than 750 faculty members and staff of St. Charles Parish schools and 250 students —though the event was held at Hahnville, it was open to members of all parish schools— participated in the event.

“Some employees have said ‘I’ve never heard a gunshot,’ or they’ve never seen any type of major injury,” Crovetto said. “From their standpoint, they say they feel better equipped to do their job (in an emergency) after the training.”

St. Charles Parish Cpl. James Grimaldi said though the exercise is for practice, it doesn’t always feel that way.

“From when I was going through this as an officer in training, you get in there and they have safety officers constantly reminding you, ‘this is a drill,’” Grimaldi said. “It’s so realistic, you really get into it. The idea with the training is it allows you to slow down with everything, so when you’re responding, you’ve almost turned that reaction into muscle memory. It’s less thinking and more instinctual.”

Grimaldi noted there are many things one may not even think about before entering into emergency response that a trial run can illuminate.

“For example, you might have to communicate with somebody with a siren screaming right next to you,” he said. “You could be yelling and not be heard. So, you learn to disarm that alarm … it all factors into stress and how to overcome what obstacle you’re facing.”

Being the first of these training exercises held at a high school, Shuff said it meant “everything is more.”“More role players, more teachers,” he said. “We wanted to ramp it up.”

The attention to detail in creating a realistic atmosphere includes a staff of make-up specialists creating realistic wounds for role-playing students to display, making their injuries look real. Injured students were also sent to St. Charles Parish Hospital, which participated in the training exercise for their own staff’s training purposes.

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