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Virtual Active Shooter Exercise

First responders prepare for worst-case scenarios

DES personnel guide simulated active shooter response training

Published: 03:02PM April 3rd, 2014

For first responders, it’s all about process, from the youngest private to the top emergency officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The big three at JBLM, all relatively new to their positions, worked through those processes March 27 during a daylong series of virtual active shooter scenarios. Provost Marshal Maj. Jay Cash, Chief of Police Ted Solonar and Fire Chief Ken Rhault were the primary focus of the training day, said John FitzGibbon, an emergency planner with the Directorate of Emergency Services.

“Once they’ve been there a couple times, and they know the procedures and the process that we’re using, then the real-world incident is a drill,” FitzGibbon said.

The scenario, guided by DES personnel at the Mission Training Complex on Lewis Main, simulated active shooters loose in a replica Waller Hall. Civilian police, MPs and fire officials at computer terminals took control of in-game avatars to respond to the situation in vehicles or on foot.

As they made their way through a scenario round, players spoke through headsets and on actual police radios. Avatars were armed with the weapons they’d carry in the field, such as the Beretta 92F/M9, Glock 22 and M4-style carbines.

Each part of the scenario, down to the distance avatars started from the objective, came into play so commanders more accurately could simulate an incident command system. Even the incident response vehicle, nicknamed “Big Red,” showed up to complete the authenticity.

Commanders then had to guide the response of their front-line people, as well as take into account constantly changing information while feeding accurate information up the chain of command.

The chief said it’s especially important for officials to get it right at JBLM with active shooter incidents. Outside agencies might come to help JBLM resources, but they won’t talk or operate the same way, and some haven’t even met each other.

That could put first responders and civilians at risk.

“In the Army, we’re used to a plan,” said Solonar, a former provost marshal at JBLM. “You’re gonna take three steps, you’re going to turn left — you can’t do that in this environment, because your responders can come from anywhere.”

To fix that, commanders worked on a standardized response protocol, one that civilian law enforcement agencies typically use for multi-agency response scenarios such as active shooters. In-game players utilized some of those same law enforcement strategies as they moved through Waller Hall.

One thing that wasn’t realistic on purpose was the proximity of the top three. Cash, Solonar and Rhault all were in the MTC or the incident command vehicle so they could attempt to seamlessly sew together the protocols of their agencies.

“That is historically a challenge as you’re responding to this kind of scene; integrating law enforcement and fire in a unified command structure,” Solonar said. “This really puts all the main players together, which we haven’t done here in a very long time.”

There also was the advantages of time, cost and personnel. Cash said decades ago, DES would have shut down Waller Hall for a day to conduct training of the scale taken in the virtual world, requiring dozens of personnel.

FitzGibbon said DES off-and-on took five months to create the scenario in Virtual Battlespace 3, the most recent iteration of a military-only simulation system. A technician spent days taking photos of Waller Hall’s interior to accurately recreate the building.

There were a few issues. First responders had to listen to the simulator sound through headsets while still using police radios. In-game mechanics sometimes failed. The game server crashed.

Technical staff rolled through the issues, however, and commanders took the downtime to further refine how they needed to work together to get things done. Even then, dispatchers and other officials continued to provide and demand information.

“In terms of getting us to think through it, it’s really helpful,” Cash said. “It really makes you think through things that you don’t know.”