Emergency responders use Conestoga school to stage mock response to gunman

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Personnel from the Washington County Sheriff's Office and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue participate in an Active Threat Response training last week at Conestoga Middle School. A mass-shooting response training at Conestoga Middle School on Monday, Dec. 30, brought the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue together for the first time on such an exercise.

The sheriff’s office and local fire district collaborated in an “Active Threat” scenario simulating a suspect actively shooting inside the school, said Sgt. Bob Ray, sheriff’s office spokesman. The training focused on transporting the wounded to a relatively safe, central location so firefighters and paramedics could help victims as quickly as possible.

More than 50 people participated in the seven-day exercise at Conestoga, 12250 S.W. Conestoga Drive, including officers and personnel from the Portland Police Bureau, the Port of Portland Police Department, the Lake Oswego Police Department and most law enforcement agencies in Washington County.

The sheriff’s office has trained since 1999 for incidents that involve a person actively shooting or posing a threat, but last week’s collaborative exercise was the first of its kind for the agency.

“Deputies are trained to quickly enter a building where someone is actively shooting,” Ray said. “Once inside, their job is to control and contain the shooter.”

Law enforcement will also evacuate people from the building, if possible, noted Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett.

Recent public shootings such as those in late 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the Clackamas Town Center near Portland, emphasized the need for law enforcement to train with firefighters and paramedics, Garrett noted. Authorities have learned from past shootings that police and fire agencies must communicate and coordinate to help victims.

“Everything has an evolution,” said Sgt. Vance Stimler, a sheriff’s office spokesman. “As we try to evolve our training to be more realistic, if this (incident) were to occur, TVF&R is going to show up. So it makes sense, when possible, to train with other agencies. This is just another opportunity to see what they’re going to do and for them to see what we’re going to do.”

Ray emphasizes the importance of working in advance with other emergency responders.

“If something happens, everyone’s going,” he said. “Everyone’s going because they all want to help.”

Having access to a school building during winter break provides a golden opportunity to train in a more realistic setting than what officers usually have available.

“It’s great when opportunities come up for us to train in areas that are real,” Stimler said. “A school, that’s a real area that provides multiple scenarios for officers to do different things.”

In typical simulated-training sessions, or “simunitions,” officers practice shooting using paintball-like bullets in an enclosed environment.

“Deputies are trained to actually seek a threat and take appropriate lethal action if necessary,” Stimler said. “Not every scenario is lethal in nature. There are more heightened situations where people are yelling and running (and officers have to) determine who is or isn’t a threat.”

As with all emergency scenarios, the training is based on the need for emergency responders to quickly process information and react.

“It’s about building muscle memory,” said Dustin Morrow, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue deputy chief.

In a typical shooting scenario, wounded victims are brought to a relatively safe location — known in police and firefighter parlance as the “casualty collection point” — where police-led firefighters and paramedics can assess injuries and begin treatment. Firefighters bring injured people outside where vehicles would be waiting to take them to hospitals with a police escort.

During Monday’s training, a sheriff’s deputy armed with a training rifle led the fire crew out of the front of the school while they pretended to carry a patient. Another police officer followed.

“One in the front and one in back,” Ray noted.

Inside the school, police responded to a role-playing shooter with simulation rounds, Ray said. 

Other Washington County agencies have held similar scenarios. Hillsboro police held a mass shooting training in 2011 with a scenario roughly based on the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. It focused on police coordination with medics. Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and the city’s police department held a shooting training this past November.

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