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Petaluma responders train to handle campus gunman

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Shots rang out through the corridors of Petaluma Junior High School Tuesday.

Petaluma Police Officers, moving discreetly through the hallways with rifles at the ready, passed numerous victims strewn across the ground, all of them either students or teachers. Some were dead before first responders arrived on the scene.

The first unit exchanged gunfire with a lone shooter until they took him down. Once it was clear, a teacher burst through the doors to signal the rescue teams anxiously waiting outside the building.

“We need your help down here!” he shouted. “There’s multiple casualties!”

The scene unfolding at the vacant junior high this week was only a drill, but could easily become very real for public safety officers.

As Petaluma students prepared to go back to school, class was already in session for the city’s police and fire officials, who took part in two days of exercises over the past week to prepare for violent attacks on a campus.

The 8-hour tactical training sessions, which closed off Bantam Way, have become increasingly more vital with mass shootings and deadly violence suddenly an uncomfortable reality at schools in the U.S.

“You hear about these incidents that happen in small, quaint little towns like Petaluma,” said Fire Battalion Chief Mike Medeiros. “We’re definitely not exempt from that unfortunately. We’ve got to be prepared for it.”

Aside from the experience that comes from working through scenarios in a real-world site, the third annual joint exercise allowed the two departments to establish common terminology and operational chemistry for when an emergency does actually occur.

Cooperative training has become more common throughout the country, police officials said, although law enforcement has been holding similar exercises at schools for much longer.

“It adds this layer of inter-operability where — police and fire — we’re similar, we’re public service, but there’s different nomenclatures and there’s different thought processes based on job function,” Medeiros said. “Meshing those together without doing it ever before could be challenging on a real incident, so it’s paramount to do that.”

On Tuesday morning, the junior high’s multipurpose gym was transformed into the staging area where police officers and firefighters gathered in the morning for coffee, bagels and general instruction. Folding tables covered with airsoft guns and protective gear were set up just a few feet from the entrance closest to the Polly Klaas Memorial Garden, commemorating the deadly Petaluma kidnapping that forever underscored the value of interagency collaborations.

After equipping arms and slipping on tactical gear, the trainees gathered in the bus lot while role-playing volunteers were positioned inside the hallways for the first scenario of the day: an active shooter with multiple dead.

The initial responders were tactical police units tasked with neutralizing the threat. Lt. Tim Lyons, a commander on the law enforcement side, said one of the biggest challenges for those officers, besides taking out an armed menace, is moving past victims in need so they can reduce additional casualties.

“People are yelling, ‘Help me, help me; I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding,’ and you have to pass them up in order to get the suspect who is still continually hurting people,” Lyons said.

Once the assailant was down, rescue teams made up of armed police and firefighter-paramedics draped in body armor went into the school to assess the situation.

Firefighters led the rescue efforts, providing patient care for the victims. Whenever a deadly scenario like a school shooting occurs, fire officials initiate an MCI plan, or multi-casualty incident plan, Medeiros said.

They immediately notified dispatch to start evaluating where patients can be sent, and started charting the fastest way they could to get the victims to trauma centers at Marin General and Santa Rosa Memorial hospitals. EMT units began setting up staging areas for equipment on-site so it could flow in and out of the scene. Paramedics inside began triaging victims before treating and transporting them as quickly as possible, either by aircraft or in an ambulance.

“These things are such a low frequency, high-risk incident,” Medeiros said. “So they’re frequency is so low that we’ve got to be talking about it and doing it a bit because when it does happen, we’re not overwhelmed with all the emotions that come with the incident and can truly execute what we need to do. So it’s invaluable to do this.”

The police, on the other hand, have to be prepared for every unexpected variable that comes with a violent attack at a school.

During the first scenario, commanding officers quickly sent out Nixle alerts and established a parent reunification area nearby.

A mobile command center, housed inside an RV-sized bus, came to life, with surveillance cameras set up around campus, two dispatch stations online and a sound-proof area in the middle just in case the attacker takes hostages and crisis negotiators needed to make contact.

Petaluma police and fire repeated each scenario multiple times before moving on to the next one. After they completed each respective situation, commanding officers and fire captains met with their units to debrief and audit what went down.

Each scenario varied in terms of the number of attackers, the weapons, the number of victims and which part of the school was affected. Later in the morning, the scenario involved a knife-wielding attacker that took a hostage at a sporting event on the backside of the building.

About half of each agency was involved last Friday, Aug. 3, and the rest on Tuesday.

“The goal on the whole is to go through that experience, people wounded and things like that, eliminate the threat or target, and work together as a team,” Lyons said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)