“They knew it could happen; that’s why they trained for it.” |
By Brandi Makuski
Like many local residents, emergency workers across the Metro area say they watched the events of a mass shooting unfold in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, which so far has claimed the lives of at least 59 people and injured more than 500 during a country music show.
After the initial shock wore off, they all came to the same conclusion: it was emergency rescue training, conducted at the local level, which prevented additional deaths.
It is, they say, affirmation on the importance of their own scenario training.
“They figured something like this would happen,” said Portage Co. Sheriff Mike Lukas. “I know these larger cities have been training for active shooters; that’s why we train for active shooters. That’s the era we live in, and it’s sad to say, but that’s why we do so much in regards to training.”
Lukas’ deputies train often with other local agencies to prepare for the worst possible scenario. He said while some disasters can’t be prevented, it’s the training emergency crews undergo that often means the difference between life and death.
“We’re constantly training with these [other agencies] because if it does happen here, it’s a smaller community and you’re going to use every person you’ve got,” Lukas said.
“I watched the videos this morning, where you can hear the automatic gun fire going off,” said Plover Police Chief Dan Ault on Monday. “The response from law enforcement and EMS, it’s probably remarkably different than how it would have happened 10, 15 years ago because of the way training has progressed.”
Ault called the shooting “the worst we’ve seen since 9/11,” but said the number of dead and injured could have been much higher.
“The response from their law enforcement and first responders, when they look back on it, will be seen as remarkable, and lives were probably saved because of it,” he said. “This validates the importance of our training as much as we do, and there’s no greater importance for us than protecting the people of our community.”
Ault’s department, along with the Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office and Stevens Point police, conduct annual live-shooter scenario training sessions over a period of several days. The scenarios vary, but often include an emergency medical element, with an array of serious wounds “assigned” to the volunteers portraying victims, who are then triaged and transported for further medical care as though the situation were real.
The exercise is called Rescue Task Force (RTF): an intentionally-confusing situation, often staged in a large, vacant building somewhere in the county, involving multiple victims and an unknown number of shooters, meaning all responding to the scene had to be on their toes — including the medics.
“We train yearly with all local law enforcement officer for active shooter situations,” said Assistant EMS Chief Joe Gemza from the Stevens Point Fire Dept. “That type of training helps prep us for the unforeseen events, like Las Vegas.”
The potential for mass-casualty situations locally does exist, he said, and the training strengthens a medic’s understanding of entering an active scene.
“I don’t think we can bury our heads in the sand that something like this is just a problem overseas, or in areas like New York or Las Vegas,” he said.
Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba said it’s not just the internal training that makes a difference. Departments regularly work with local schools, businesses and other entities to prepare for the unexpected.
“It’s one of the things I can say about working with the community; the cooperation is extraordinary,” Skibba said. “Typically we find that they are seeking the additional knowledge and any training we can provide them.”
Skibba said there’s an understanding among law enforcement officers that some emergencies simply aren’t preventable, and that’s why community involvement is so important: it helps officers do their jobs better.
“The more things we can gauge in the community before it reaches a level of something terrible happening, not only in the schools and the businesses, but the community in general, the better, obviously” Skibba said. “We’re constantly evaluating how we can respond to certain situations in a better way; that’s why we train.”
While the Las Vegas shooter is believed to have acted alone, local police say that’s no reason to believe something similar can’t happen in Portage Co. — but it’s also no reason to panic.
“We’re not seeing automatic weapons here, and the people of Portage County are very good with conceal carry permits and training,” he said, adding there’s “always a lot of interest” in the annual Citizens Academy class offered by local emergency crews.
“But we need the public’s help to do our job,” Lukas said. “We always have. So be vigilant. If something’s not right, call. That’s what we’re here for.”