By Brandi Makuski
Screams of agony and cries for help echoed through the empty Joern’s building in the Stevens Point Industrial Park on Thursday, seemingly coming from every direction.
The corners were dark; there were too many doors to count. No way to tell if the shooter was still in the building — or how many victims there were.
The Portage Co. Rescue Task Force (RTF) has never experienced a training scenario so realistic. It’s an intentionally- confusing situation involving multiple victims and an unknown number of shooters, meaning all involved had to be on their toes — including the medics. That’s where the relatively new RTF training comes into play.
“We introduced the concept of law enforcement and medics going in together last year, and since then we’ve trained 200 individuals in Portage County,” said Portage Co. Deputy Bob Wanta. “It was baby steps: get the cops used to working with the medics. We had to change the mindset to, ‘We gotta protect these guys’.”
The exercise was massive, involving dozens of officers and medics from Wis. State Patrol, Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office, Stevens Point and Plover police departments, Amherst, Hull and Stevens Point EMS, and took place during eight scenarios over the first two weeks of March.
While nothing so devastating as Thursday’s scenario has ever occurred in the Stevens Point Area, the RTF training was utilized last June in Bancroft, when murder suspect Larry Sanchez allegedly shot and killed his wife before holding police at bay during a four-hour armed standoff. Early on crews had no way of knowing how many people were injured, so EMT’s entered the scene simultaneously with armed officers.
“We never would have done it that way before [RTF],” said Lt. Ron Heibler from the Stevens Point Fire Department. “We never even would have thought about it.”
Heibler said it’s instances like the one in Bancroft that remind local law enforcement and EMS crews they need to be prepared for a situation similar to Columbine or Virginia Tech.
“If you want a really good example of not being prepared, of not having a plan, look at Aurora, Colorado — not one patient in that mass casualty was transported by ambulance; they were all transported in cop cars,” Heibler said. “The EMT’s were staged a few block away and the cops were going, ‘Where the hell are the medics?’ So the cops started throwing patients in their cars and driving 100 miles an hour to the hospital. This kind of training will prevent that here.”
Wanta said the county’s RTF — the first in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee — began last year. It’s a type of training designed to prepare state troopers, police, deputies and even Dept. of Natural Resources wardens to work with fellow officers from other agencies — and it puts medics into the thick of an emergency situation, side-by-side with law enforcement.
The concept is a simple one, according to Wanta: medics, outfitted in safety vests and helmets, and carrying medical bags, enter a live-shooter scene directly behind an armed officer, each with their hand on the preceding officer’s shoulder. As the group inches its way along each interior wall, the officer provides nonstop cover to the immediate area, while medics can attend to the wounded. Once the injured are examined and tended to, the group moves on — but only together.
“Look at this place — there’s a black abyss over there, there’s dark corners; you never know where the bad guy is,” Wanta said, pointing to the large empty warehouse with instructors watching from various vantage points. “There’s a thousand places to hide and a gun could pointed at you from any one of them.”
Criminal justice students from Northcentral Technical College in Wausau and Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids, along with youngsters from the SPFD Explorers post played wounded victims, complete with fake blood, visible wounds, and convincing screams for help.
The hardest element of the exercise for the medics, according to Wanta, was trust.
“We had to get these guys to trust us,” he said, putting his hand on Heibler’s shoulder. “If it’s done right, there’s no problem. He and I go into a room, he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder — he knows I’ve got his back.”
According to Assistant Chief Joe Gemza from SPFD, each of the training days began at Woodlands Church in Plover — an admittedly odd location for a police-action drill, he said, but added the space was large enough for the group to go over the day’s events. The church volunteered their space, which was close to Joerns, and even donated coffee and donuts.
“We were able to get a quick refresher, and go through some practice before we headed over to Joerns,” Gemza said. “This kind of training takes a lot of planning and a lot of cooperating from multiple agencies.”
Planning for the training events began last September, according to Wanta, who added police and fire already have strong ties locally, but adding in officers from the state patrol and DNR wardens, along with medics, was a new experience for most.
“Even as instructors, we’re learning from them,” Wanta said. “As far as adding in the DNR guys, I mean, they carry guns too. They learn to shoot from a boat; we don’t. So they have that experience, and it’s an extra body, an extra gun. He needs to know what to expect because in a situation like this.”
“If we’re going to face something like this, we’re going to need every person we can get,” said Heibler. “It’s a great relationship. We’re talking about synergy; this is synergy right here. I’ve never, ever been worried with these guys. I’ve worked in a lot of places, a lot of cops. We have the best law enforcement I’ve ever worked with.”