Worst Case Scenario

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Training exercises like the disaster drill held in Galax last week ensure that police, rescue workers and medical staff have thought about the unthinkable

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

An armed, angry man fires shots at the office workers at the Galax Elementary School and takes a hostage before barricading himself in the library with 20 students.
The casualties mount as the man drags the hostage, a volunteering parent, looking for his wife throughout Galax Elementary School...



This terrifying training scenario — conducted after students had gone home — is the kind of thing that no parent wants to think about.
But, it's exactly the kind of situation that police and emergency services workers need to prepare for.
Last Wednesday's simulation was frighteningly realistic.
Not finding his wife in the teachers' lounge, the subject opens fire with his two handguns again and then tells the hostage to take him to the library.
Once inside, he chains the doors together. He fights off two teachers that try to tackle him and a gun goes off, injuring another person in the school.
After a teacher in the building calls 911, the school resource officer arrives on the scene.
"Somebody talk to me!" she yells at the locked library door, after her initial assessment of the facility. "What's going on?"
"Go away!" yells a deep voice from behind the door.
"If you don't leave somebody's going to get hurt," says the man in the library. "My wife won't talk to me and I'm not talking to you.”
Meanwhile, cries of "Please, help! I've been shot." echo through the hallways from victims in the office.
Over the radio, another officer reports five victims in the office area.
"Shooter is contained in the library at this time," radio traffic says.
The call goes out to have the high school go on lockdown, too.
As police in flak jackets search the school, they ignore the other people gathered calmly in the main hallway outside the office.
These are the ones wearing the green or red vests with badges clipped on, identifying them as either "controllers," "evaluators" or "observers" of this drill for police and emergency services.
When ambulances arrive on the scene, personnel with the Galax-Grayson Emergency Medical Services don protective gear and go into the school before city police and Grayson deputies have subdued the suspect in the library.
Attracted by the flashing lights of all the police cars that have converged on the school — and by the steady stream of ambulances rolling in to transport "patients" either carried or escorted out of the facility by medics — a few neighborhood residents gather on Front Street, up the hill from the elementary school.
A recreational vehicle parked in the school's lower parking lot serves as the command center — several police and school board chairman Ray Kohl, the public contact for this event — are stationed there.
In a mock press release, the authorities acknowledge that an emergency situation exists. "We only know that an armed unidentified individual entered Galax Elementary School, has wounded three individuals and has currently barricaded himself in the school library with approximately 20 students who are under his control."
Police, deputies and other emergency personnel are on scene.
Emergency officials "request that all parents not come to the area of the school so that the officers can perform their duties," the release said. "All other students are safe and in a lockdown situation."
Police bring in a negotiator to talk with the suspect and end the tense situation without any more of the hostages being harmed.

Police Chief Rick Clark said that participants analyzed the training until about 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
The Galax Police Department, an accredited law enforcement agency, believes strongly in training, Clark said. Last year, police participated in a "tabletop exercise," which consisted of talking about a theoretical emergency.
"You want to put feet on the ground," he said. "I saw a couple of training issues we need to emphasize."
Going into a building where there's a victim's screaming and crying — even in a drill like this — can be a chilling situation, Clark said. "They went into a simulated tragedy."
One issue that became apparent came from Galax officers having trouble communicating with the Grayson deputies over their radios — especially inside the school, the chief said.
This drill allowed local officials to test interagency cooperation and the new emergency command post that Galax Fire Department and police have partnered on. It also gave Twin County Regional Hospital a chance to see how well its staff can treat multiple casualties at once.
The rainy weather would have made it more difficult for emergency officials to cope with some of their duties otherwise, but the command post served its intended purpose, Clark noted.
This training served as the rollout of Galax-Grayson EMS tactical medic team, explained Ron Passmore, EMS chief.
Traditionally, medics are told to stage while police secure the scene, but tactical medics go in with law enforcement to start treating patients and evacuate them sooner, he said. The quick response improves the patients' chances for recovery.
Similar to combat medics in the military, tactical medics look a lot like police in their protective body armor and helmets, but they have bandages, tape, IV equipment and other medical supplies strapped into their vests instead of weapons.
Medics going in before the suspect was arrested saved lives, Passmore said after the training. The medics got to nine of the injured, treated them and evacuated them a good 45 minutes to an hour before the suspect was in custody.
"It was a good example of how we can mitigate the loss of life by having that program," the EMS chief said.
It's a way of thinking contrary to the paramedics' training, he added. The EMS personnel have to evaluate the severity of injuries and the order in which the patients get treatment in chaotic conditions.
Medics removed the patients in the exact order that Passmore intended, the EMS chief noted. He's proud of his medics and that EMS can offer this as a service.
"I was pleased with the response of my folks," Clark said. "It's rewarding to work in an area where people are willing to work together."