LIMERICK — Gunshots boomed through the hallways of Spring-Ford Area High School Tuesday afternoon as grim-faced police officers in varying uniforms rushed together down a hallway past people laying on the floor and reaching up.
The prone figures’ calls for help were droned out by an intruder alarm blaring over the school’s public address system. An officer at the rear of the hustling, armed formation heading to the shots leapt over one woman on the ground as he moved.
So went the final drill carried out Tuesday afternoon within the high school. The multiple exercises were part of training for patrol officers with various local police departments led by members of the Ches-Mont Emergency Response Team (CMERT) in coordination with the Spring-Ford Area School District.
“Hopefully (the officers) never have to face this but, if they do, they have an understanding now,” said Steve Morrissey, of the Pottstown Police, once the final drill concluded.
“It’s good to use the school,” said Limerick Police Chief Bill Albany. “Although we’re familiar with the layout of the school, other local police departments may not be, so it’s good to get them inside and see.”
Administrators, secretaries, custodians and other year-round district staff along with teacher volunteers turned out to serve as participants and actors to provide a more realistic and comprehensive training experience for the officers involved both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Wednesday’s training was held at Evans Elementary School to provide a different venue for the exercises.
Superintendent David Goodin, Assistant Superintendent Allyn Roche and high school Principal Pat Nugent were all on hand Tuesday to observe and assist in the training at the high school.
“It’s kind of surreal because it’s something in our day-to-day and I’m seeing it like this,” Nugent said, watching a team train clearing rooms down one second-floor hallway.
Before everything beganTuesday, while meeting with the Spring-Ford participants, Morrissey was clear that officers in the training wouldn’t have live ammunition on them and that only a select few would be using blanks just for sound effect purposes.
In both days of training, officers practiced different formations and communicating with each other as they cleared rooms in certain areas of the school. Occasionally, a CMERT member would pose as a “bad guy” and hide in a classroom or fire off blanks to add a sense of realism to the exercises.
While police briefed before their active drills Tuesday, the Spring-Ford staff received a presentation from Albany and Upper Providence Police Sgt. Robert Solorio on the best practices if a school were to be set upon by a shooter.
“It’s challenging,” Albany said of such a situation in a school. “We’re not going to sit up here and paint a rosy picture.”
An active shooter situation involving adults is difficult enough, but mixing in students, especially young students, complicates the situation.
Albany and Solorio discussed a three-part guideline and showed a video
for how to act: “Run, hide, fight.”
As they explained, the “run” aspect is most preferable, moving potential victims out of harm’s way. If running is unavailable, hiding, barricading entrances with whatever furniture is available and remaining quiet is the next best option. Finally, if all else fails, using improvised weapons and fighting is necessary for survival, they said.
The pair emphasized committing to fighting and holding nothing back if that option needs to be chosen.
“You need to have a survivor mind set,” Albany said. “You need to think, ‘I can win this.’”
Referencing the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Albany said the mindset to automatically locking down a school in response to a shooter while waiting for a SWAT team to arrive has changed.
Now, having different options as opposed to simply hiding and bringing in regular patrol officers as quickly as possible to clear a building is the preffered protocol, Albany said.
Hiding under a desk and waiting for SWAT is “giving up” and giving the shooter “100 percent control” of the situation, according to Albany.
Having a personal plan is important, as well as being aware of your surroundings and the people around you. Notifying police of possible problems before they possibly evolve into violence is tantamount.
“We’d much rather come in and say, ‘It’s not a big deal,’” than deal with violence, Albany said.
Above all, both Albany and Solorio said those involved should know police will respond soon if a shooter situation does occur.
“We’re coming,” Albany said. “Believe me, we’re coming.”
“The difficulty with the school situation is having the staff to assess the situation with the variables you have,” Goodin said during a question session after the presentation.
It was clear that there is no one right answer, but preparedness is key.
Eighty-eight staff members were present for the presentation and to participate in the drills, Goodin said.
“This is awesome to see the cooperation with the school and law enforcement,” Solorio said.
Over the two-day training, roughly 200 Spring-Ford employees are expected to participate.
Additionally, Goodin said, during at least one of this coming year’s in-service days, he hopes to have staff receive the same presentation so everyone will be on the same page.
“There’s got to be a (flexible) framework for our teachers,” Goodin said. “There isn’t just a ‘This is what you do.’”
Teresa Carboy, the principal of Royersford Elementary School, was one of the employees on hand to take part in the training.
She admitted to being nervous for the active drills, but was glad they were taking place.
“I think it’s important for us, as administrators, to have a training so there’s a protocol in place,” she said. “The professionalism of the police was really extraordinary ... it’s just really awesome to know local police are cooperating together.”
She said she feels a “sense of relief” something like the training is happening and such an emphasis is being placed on safety.
Roche said the drills were partly in response to some of the “questions raised by Sandy Hook” Elementary in Newtown Conn., where a shooter killed 26 and along with his mother and himself Dec. 14 last year.
Nugent said that shooting definitely plays on his mind.
“In my job, you always are concerned but you have to have faith in the plan,” Nugent said.
That’s why officers armed with patrol rifles and sidearms missing their magazines and ammunition hummed through Spring-Ford’s hallways Tuesday and others will continue training on Wednesday.
By the end of the staff participation, members of CMERT were generally happy with how things were going.
“What we’re doing here is near and dear to us,” Morrissey said. “It may save our lives.”