Staccato gunfire resounded through the hallways of Douglas High School on Wednesday morning as law enforcement officials carried out a standard drill that two decades ago might have been inconceivable.
The live rounds used in the active shooter drill were blanks, but they blasted the ears like real bullets. Spent cartridges lay strewn on the ground. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air. Students, who had volunteered to participate during spring break, ran screaming from the classrooms.
“Typically, we don’t rush into scenes of violence,” said Douglas County Sheriff’s Capt. Dan Britton. “For incidents like bank robberies, we set up a perimeter and establish dialogue with the suspect... But this is a completely different situation. The suspect has already established his intent to kill people. Instead of containing him, we ask our guys to get in there as quickly as they can and stop him.”
It’s one of the worst scenarios imaginable in the minds of parents. A troubled individual opens fire in a school with no regard for life. Children are shot indiscriminately, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s a terrifying scenario to consider but one that has played out across the country with alarming frequency.
Since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, deranged individuals have targeted malls, movie theaters, universities, and, last December, a suburban elementary school.
The phenomenon struck close to home in 2011 when a 32-year-old man opened fire inside an IHOP restaurant in Carson City, killing three National Guard members and one civilian.
“We have several guys here who responded on that day,” said Britton. “It really drove home the fact that this can happen anywhere.”
As federal lawmakers debate gun control, mental health, violence in the media, and other topics, local law enforcement officials continue to train for any incident.
“Prior to Columbine, these things were so rare that law enforcement was behind the eight ball. We didn’t have the techniques because no one really did it,” Britton said. “The watershed event was Columbine. That’s when law enforcement came up with the techniques of rapid deployment and immediate intervention. Now, it seems a month doesn’t go by without something happening.”
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has hosted active shooter training for the last 12 years. The first training took place at Douglas High School in the wake of Columbine, and the program has since rotated between schools and other sites in the Valley.
Britton said every member of the sheriff’s office is trained at least every other year, so that everyone is current on responsive techniques.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he said. “We do four- to five-hour blocks and spend an hour and a half in the classroom discussing trends, what these guys who commit these crimes tend to be like, how they operate, and how we want to respond.”
This week, over the course of four days, the sheriff’s office trained with both Nevada and California highway patrol, Washoe Tribal Police, the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office, Douglas County Alternative Sentencing and East Fork Fire & Paramedic Districts.
Four different training teams operated simultaneously on the empty campus. Three of them were “contact” teams, and one was a rescue team, Britton explained.
The contact team is compromised of first-responders, literally whoever arrives on scene first. Most deputies are equipped with AR-15 rifles and standard sidearm pistols.
“The contact team’s responsibility is to make contact and find the suspect,” Britton said. “The contact team steps over wounded people to find the suspect and stop him.”
The team moves toward the sound of gunfire, quickly, checking suspected hideouts, keeping students close to the ground, rifles up and ready.
“One thing we tell them in the Power Point is that the guys who commit these crimes are different than typical criminals,” Britton said. “There is no escape plan. Their plan is to die.”
Following the contact team is the rescue team. Its primary job is to escort medics to the wounded.
“They provide cover for the paramedics,” said Britton. “The paramedics are going through doing triage and might encounter the suspect. Eventually SWAT would assemble and clear the entire facility, checking every nook and cranny to make sure no one’s hiding.”
The reality of mass shootings, Britton said, is that they transpire quickly.
“The average post-Columbine shooting lasts eight minutes,” he said. “Our best response time, unless someone happens to be patrolling the area, is right around six or seven minutes. The IHOP shooting lasted a total of 87 seconds.”
Britton said most incidents are over by the time police arrive. Ninety percent of the suspects commit suicide.
“We’re as ready as we can be,” he said.
Douglas High juniors Kellie Hergenrader and Sam Bohannon, both 17, volunteered to act as bystanders fleeing the mock shooter.
“It gets your blood pumping,” said Hergenrader. “You have to react fast and trust what the cops tell you to do.”
She said it’s disturbing to imagine a shooting in a tight-knit community like Carson Valley.
“But it’s naive to think it couldn’t happen here,” she said.
Bohannon described the training experience as unreal.
“It’s crazy to see how quickly everything happens and how well-trained the police officers are,” he said.
Unfortunately, he concluded, mass shootings have become a reality of the modern world.
“It’s hard to think that you could walk by someone every day, and then they could go shoot up the hallway,” he said.
At the same time, he admitted the prevalence of the problem has led him to examine his own behavior.
“What I see, as the frequency of shootings goes up, is that these people are outcasts. They’ve been picked on and bullied,” he said. “We should treat people better.”