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Active shooter drills: Toeing the line of realism


On October 16, 2013, Michelle Meeker was working as a nurse at Heritage Park Care Center, a nursing facility in Carbondale, Colorado, when she was unexpectedly taken hostage at gunpoint. Meeker begged for her life, unaware that the gunman was actually a Carbondale police officer participating in an active shooter drill.

Active shooter drills: Toeing the line of realism

Active shooter drills should be realistic, but recent mishaps highlight risks of not informing participants

On October 16, 2013, Michelle Meeker was working as a nurse at Heritage Park Care Center, a nursing facility in Carbondale, Colorado, when she was unexpectedly taken hostage at gunpoint. Meeker begged for her life, unaware that the gunman was actually a Carbondale police officer participating in an active shooter drill.

In reality, the nursing center had planned the drill to prepare staff members for the possibility of an armed intruder. But in a lawsuit filed in July 2014, Meeker alleges that the nursing facility and its parent company, Life Care Centers of America, neglected to inform patients that it was merely a drill. Meeker claims that she continues to suffer significant damages stemming from the incident in October, including severe mental and emotional distress. Meeker's lawyer told The Wall Street Journal that she was so overwhelmed she didn't believe the gunman when he said he was a police officer.

A lawyer with the Carbondale Police Department told the newspaper that police believed management had notified employees about the exercise and that the gun the officer was carrying was fake. Robert Baker, executive director of the Heritage Park Care Center, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation; however, he noted the facility conducts routine safety drills.

In November 2014, a Florida middle school made national news when police officers burst into classrooms with guns drawn as part of an active shooter drill. According to ABC Action News, the principal and the school resource officer were the only ones that knew about the drill. Some of the students were frightened and parents were enraged. Days later, the school's principal was suspended while an investigation was conducted.

These incidents bring to light some of the serious legal and ethical issues surrounding active shooter drills, regardless of the environment. Although emergency drills are intended to offer a degree of realism to be effective, active shooter drills should be handled with caution, particularly in the healthcare environment.

Active shooter drills are by far the most difficult to coordinate and emulate, says Lisa Pryse Terry, CHPA, CPP, president of the healthcare security services division and chief of company police at ODS Security Solutions in Raleigh, North Carolina. It's imperative that everyone is informed of the drill and that no real firearms are involved. However, telling staff and participants about the drill doesn't mean you are sacrificing life-like response. The best option, Terry says, is to utilize an unused medical building and coordinate with local police to create a high-stress drill.

"We have actually used types of aerosol weapons so you're wearing all your gear and body armor and there is some very realistic training," she says. "But I would never advocate doing that in an open hospital or an open emergency department for any reason."

The effectiveness of an active shooter drill relies on the ability to train staff members to respond appropriately while they are under a tremendous amount of stress. Joe Deedon, founder and president of TAC*ONE Consulting in Denver, says that active shooter drills can be very realistic under the right circumstances. Deedon, a former law enforcement officer SWAT team member, now runs active shooter drills around the country, primarily at schools. He notes that he has worked with hospitals to provide classroom-based response training, but hospitals often face obstacles when it comes to full-scale active shooter drills because of space, scheduling, and funding.

Providing training prior to the drill is just as important as the drill itself, Deedon says. When he works with schools, his team typically devotes two hours of classroom training to educating participants on the best way to react to an active gunman scenario. From there, they conduct physical training where participants practice gun takeaways and shooter takedowns.

"Then we go to the real, full-blown scenario," he says. "But by that time, we kind of empower them with the information we give them on the class and the physical skills we give them on the mat. They are stressed out, but they feel confident. They aren't a sitting duck and they aren't helpless."

The full-blown scenario follows major safety standards used for military and law enforcement training. The scenario typically includes a gunman with safety blanks that bursts screaming into a room, strobe lights, and loud pre-recorded alarms or gunfire that offer audiovisual stressors for participants.

"It's one of those things that is needed, the stressful part," he says. "There is the classroom-based training, but the human body functions differently under stress."

But the key is to have control over that stressful situation without taking it to the extreme. Deedon adds that under no circumstances would his team conduct a drill without that initial training, or without ensuring everyone involved is aware that they are participating in a drill. Often, if participants are anxious about the drill, they can stand back and watch before actually participating, Deedon says.

Aside from the litigation risks, approaching an active shooter drill without informing everyone involved can be detrimental to training. "If it's unannounced, [participants] aren't going to retain any of the things we do in that scenario because their mind is going to shut down," Deedon says. "When you go through a traumatic event, it's stored in a certain part of your brain, but you don't remember much, so you're not benefitting in any way. Your body starts functioning differently and your mind starts functioning differently, and you're not exactly retaining that information."

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