As mass shootings proliferate, training gets more realistic

Matt Vasilogambros | Stateline.org (TNS)

SAN DIEGO — The pop-pop-pop of gunfire cracked just as the rain started to fall in grisly synchronicity. Then the screams began.

Within moments, civilians lay strewn across the ground, some lifeless, others writhing in pain. Blood flowed in streams that pooled with the rainwater on the muddying ground littered with shell casings.

Three gunmen quickly opened fire on a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department armored BearCat truck arriving in response. It crawled along an alleyway. Half a dozen SWAT members pointed rifles into open doorways or fired back from behind corners.

One assailant, wearing black gloves and a graying black beard, stood on a third-floor apartment balcony and, as deputies came closer, threw a Molotov cocktail at two white cars parked below. The explosion sent a blast of heat and sound, its boom punctuated by the gunman’s AK-47.

“Help me!” bellowed a man rolling on the ground, blood shooting from his severed leg. Another man groaned next to him, hidden by smoke billowing around the cars.

It seemed like something out of an action movie. And, in a way, it was.

The rounds were blanks, the Molotov cocktail wasn’t lit, the smoke came from a machine. The explosion was controlled, the victims and gunmen were actors, and the blood was fake. However, the deputies, firefighters and doctors from across the region were real.

They were in the middle of a simulation on a Saturday afternoon in mid-January in a commercial lot on the north end of San Diego, conducted by Strategic Operations, a local company run by former Hollywood producers and military combat veterans.

First responders and law enforcement agents have for decades used simulations to train for mass casualty events such as shootings or natural disasters, especially after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. But in recent years, as mass shootings have become increasingly common in the United States, the simulations have become more and more realistic. Now they feature visceral sound effects, trained actors, pyrotechnics and even virtual reality. The trainings also have become more and more expensive for public agencies.

But hyper-realistic simulations are essential for learning how to respond to an active shooter, triage mass casualties and coordinate among departments in a chaotic environment, said Sgt. Colin Hebeler, who works in the Infrastructure Security Group within the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. The department has two facilities where deputies go through similar simulation training.

“If we can provide these trainings that are as close to the real-life event as possible, you will actually induce that same kind of stress and the reaction that you might have during a real-life incident,” he told Stateline.

Stop the killing, stop the dying

Training has evolved in Hebeler’s 16 years in the department, expanding well beyond both the classroom and limited simulations that involved plastic pieces that looked like guns and shouts of “Bang, bang.” Although expensive, simulated mass shootings are far more intense, realistic and frequent now, he said.

“If it does happen, we’re going to be prepared,” Hebeler added. “We don’t want this to be one of those catastrophic events that comes out on the news, and everyone says, ‘Well, the law enforcement messed up.’”

Law enforcement agencies continue to face public scrutiny over how they respond to mass shooting events — highlighted by last month’s scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice on the response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people dead, all but two of them elementary school children.

First responders are trained to focus on two things in a mass shooting event: Stop the killing and stop the dying. By waiting 77 minutes outside the fourth grade classrooms where the active shooter was before confronting and killing him, Uvalde law enforcement failed to follow protocols and that cost lives, the federal report found.

Uvalde showed “layer upon layer upon layer of failures,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government. Simulations highlight the sights, sounds and smells of an active shooter event in a controlled environment so the failures seen in Uvalde don’t occur, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the first officer or by yourself or there’s 20 of you, you go in and you stop the shooter, and then you start trying to help the people who’ve been injured,” she said.

“Simulations are really about acclimating you to what you might encounter on that given day, so that you are able to maintain that focus and subsequently your safety as best as possible.”

But she wanted to be clear about one point: This kind of training should never be used in schools among children. It is far too traumatic.

Simulation’s increased use

Seventeen miles east of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, Wake Technical Community College is building a 60,000-square-foot facility with an 8-acre driving pad that is dedicated to reality-based simulation training for police, fire and emergency medical workers.

From the outside, observers wouldn’t realize the massive gray complex is full of buildings and streets, with spaces designed to mimic the commercial, jail, residential and school spaces first responders would experience in their communities. Trainees can drive into the facility, pull up to a specific location inside and respond to the simulated event — a school shooting, for example, or a fire inside a supermarket.

During mass shooting simulations, trainees will experience the disaster through all their senses: It could smell like smoke, there might be flashing lights and sirens, role players may act as screaming victims or use simulated munitions filled with paint. The $60 million facility, which is slated to open this spring, was funded by a bond that Wake County voters approved in 2018.

For officers, simulation training is much more effective than shooting at a line of paper targets, or simply going over shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios, said Jamie Wicker, provost of public safety education at Wake Tech. Training for mass shooting events has developed over many years with the help of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, she added.

“It’s one thing to describe chaos. It’s completely different to experience chaos,” said Wicker, who has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, in part as a trainer. “This is managed chaos.”

This approach has been backed up by researchers who have studied the effectiveness of simulation training for first responders.