Patrick is polite, even cordial as he asks at the front desk to see his old boss. He’s invited back to the office in the IT department in Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s East Campus.
The conversation gets heated, with Patrick blaming his troubles on the man who fired him. He repeatedly demands help, another job, something. His shouting brings another employee to see if everything’s all right. The director calls a code gray, hospital code for an aggressive person.
The receptionist keeps her cool, calls in the information to the hospital switchboard and heads back to help defuse the situation. Other employees will come when the announcement goes out over the intercom.
A calm voice over the building’s speakers calls the code moments before Patrick draws his gun.
“They didn’t say East Campus when they paged it overhead,” the drill supervisor interrupts. “Can you call them and have them do it again?”
The staffer playing the receptionist in the elaborate active shooter exercise heads back to the desk for take two.
The live drill Wednesday for the Aberdeen Fire Department, Aberdeen and Hoquiam police departments and the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office is the kind of training police officers have been doing since the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School.
But fire departments have lagged behind in updating their tactics to match.
“It’s been addressed but it’s such a culture change,” Aberdeen Fire Department Chief Tom Hubbard said.
The East Campus drill was a preliminary test of the rescue team model, where fire department personnel come in with police officers after the initial threat has been contained but before the scene has been cleared completely.
“It’s just integrating police and fire. It sounds so simple on paper but it’s not,” Hubbard said.
Standard policy in most fire departments in the event of a violent incident is that firefighters wait in a safe area until law enforcement has given the all-clear.
It’s a reasonable policy in some situations, but when a mass shooting occurs, waiting to clear the scene can leave injured people waiting hours for help. After the December 2012 shooting at Clackamas Town Center in Oregon, it was about six hours before the mall was cleared, Hubbard said.
The goal of the new model is to get to seriously injured people in these “warm zones” and get them to a secured extraction area.
“The point is to get in quickly so you can stop the bleeding,” Hubbard said. Police officers “are stopping the killing, we’re now coming in quickly to prevent the dying.”
It’s about getting the seriously injured to safety, he continued.
“We’re going to be pulling out the people that are near death,” Hubbard said. “Not everyone is going to get funneled out.”
Officers and firefighters may check in briefly with people they come across to make sure they’re not seriously injured, then point them toward the secure area where more officers are waiting.
• • •
Back at the drill, the supervisors conclude staffers successfully completed their code gray drill, and let the scene continue.
Patrick’s gun comes out, the employees try to leave the department and the receptionist calls 911 to report the weapon.
None of them make it to the door. The director is shot dead, the receptionist is wounded and another employee is taken hostage. Patrick marches him into the hallway, peers around, then comes back, heading toward the enclosed back office.
But police are at the door two minutes, 45 seconds after the 911 call, coming from the station. So quickly, in fact, Patrick doesn’t make it all the way back to the office for his scripted standoff. An Aberdeen officer reaches the door alone, backup delayed by radio problems in the old building.
“Drop the weapon, police!” the officer commands again and again. He gets a clear shot and takes it, hitting Patrick with several training rounds.
The scene starts again, this time with Patrick safely behind the closed office door and two Aberdeen officers clearing the department.
The first takes a quick look through the office’s window.
“Police department, let your hostage go,” the officer shouts. “Do you want to talk to someone?”
The rest happens fast, the hostage getting shoved out the door and Patrick taking his own life.
• • •
It’s not the end of the scenario; officers don’t know if there are other shooters in the building. But there’s a survivor in there they know needs help.
“They made it as safe as possible. You can’t wait till it’s safe enough to put kids back in there,” Aberdeen Police Capt. John Green said.
Police are still working around the radio problem, sending in additional teams to relay information to the incident command post.
An extraction point to bring wounded out to ambulances has been secured at the door near the incident command. The rescue team is ready to go.
The teams consist of two firefighters/paramedics escorted in tight formation by at least two, ideally three police officers.
“Their goal in life is to protect those paramedics,” Aberdeen Police Sgt. Art Laur explained.
Two officers walk ahead of the two paramedics, one officer walking backward, scanning behind them as they go.
They make it safely to the office, moving quickly to the wounded receptionist. A paramedic begins assessing her injuries, applies some quick aid and within about a minute, they’re lifting her onto a fabric emergency stretcher and dragging her to safety, the officers on their guard. The whole process takes five minutes.
“It’s combat casualty care learned in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Hubbard said.
Finally, officers are able to get back and retrieve the uninjured hostage and complete the training.
• • •
“I’m really pleased with how this went,” Hubbard said after the training. “It was a little ahead of our learning curve, but it went really well.”
It wasn’t without hitches: the garbled radio chatter made some people around the county think there was a real incident, communication needed to be faster and more specific and some technical details of the drill need refining.
But as a first step, the outcome is good.
“I’m really happy with it,” Green said. “We were successful in our deployment, we were successful in handling the threat. … I’m just proud as hell.”
“Things happened that weren’t scripted to happen and they were handled appropriately,” Laur said.
There are more drills to come before the integrated rescue policy is rolled out for real incidents countywide, hopefully by December or January. Last year, Hubbard and Laur attended a drill in Hillsboro, Ore. that was much more advanced than Wednesday’s attempt.
“As officers pulled up they had explosives outside. It was quite a drill. We want to build to that,” Hubbard said.
The new tactics are slowly making their way around the country, but most departments still haven’t adopted them.
“I think we’re just way ahead of where other agencies are at,” Laur said.
Hubbard was first exposed to the concept two years ago at the National Fire Academy, where he’s been working on a four-year Executive Fire Officer training, similar to a master’s degree. His final paper was written about this active shooter training.
The change in strategy puts firefighters in harm’s way, but Hubbard said the response from his staff has been “really positive.”
He compared it to entering a burning building. The risk is always there, but with proper training and planning, it’s kept to a minimum to allow firefighters to save lives.
“We would never send them in without law enforcement,” Hubbard said.
“The paramedics, they’re gung-ho, they’re willing to do this,” Green said. “I think it’s important the community knows the firefighters are willing to do this, to go into this for them.”