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Preparing for the worst: law enforcement trains at Douglas High

by Merrie Leininger

How do you prepare for the unknown?

In light of the growing number of workplace and schoolyard shootings, Douglas County law enforcement officers are tackling that question this week with tactical training exercises at Douglas High School.

Sgt. Dan Britton of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office led the classroom portion of the training, which started Monday. He said shooting response techniques contradict everything police officers are told about containing a dangerous situation.

“They (gunmen) differ from most criminals because they don’t have a plan to escape. They plan on dying there, either by forcing you to kill them or by committing suicide,” Britton told the DCSO deputies, Nevada Highway Patrol troopers and paramedics.

Britton cited two local incidents demonstrating Douglas County is not immune to these situations. He said 15 years ago, a man was apprehended outside the Minden sheriff’s office with guns and about 18 years ago, a man open fired in the Lakeside Inn, but didn’t injure anyone.

Britton, a member of the Special Operations Response Team – which trains for such situations – said anytime officers are called to a dangerous scene where they have little information, they set up a perimeter and wait for more information.

“With these situations, it doesn’t work that way. We have to go in quicker. A delayed response will result in more victims,” he said.

Britton said the first three officers on the scene – the response team – go in. The following officers – the rescue team – follow with paramedics.

“In an active gunman situation, most of the training you’ve had before is obsolete. You have to expect the unexpected. There may be fire alarms going off, pipe bombs – it is inherently dangerous. We can only try to make it as safe as we can,” Britton said.

Britton led the officers through room-clearing techniques, used when officers are walking into a building with many rooms and the officers have little or no information on the number or location of gunmen.

Each day this week, about 20 officers were trained in possible scenarios with the help of DHS drama students acting as victims and hostages and a Douglas deputy acting as the shooter. Officers used altered semi-automatic handguns that shot capsules of blue soap.

Officers moved through different hallways of the school. They also went into the library, which is the only room in the school with two floors. In that scenario, officers had to deal with two shooters and an activated burglar alarm.

The noise and surprise of gunshots was followed by the smell and smoke of burning gunpowder.. Although none of the officers had active rounds in their guns, the lead officers carried high-powered rifles with blanks. Adrenaline was high and the situation was considered just as serious as if deputies had to protect students from a real gunman. Students wore face masks on the chance a casing or soap capsule hit them.

One of the students acting as a victim Monday was Christina Elder, a junior. She said the difficulty of preparing for such a situation was not lost on her.

“I think it is beneficial for the officers. I’m glad they’re going through it. It’s a great idea. But it will not run like this if it really is happening,” she said.

SORT member and DCSO investigator Mike Munoz led some of the scenarios.

“It’s going pretty good. We are getting the response we hoped. Most of the guys said it is good just to be doing something new in the training,” Munoz said.

Britton said every officer in Douglas County – from jail deputies to Sheriff Ron Pierini – will go through the training this week, because whoever responds first to an active shooting situation can’t hesitate.

“It’s very difficult stuff to do, but I really think they’re getting the hang of it. I think it is time well spent,” Britton said.

Deputy Doug Conrad said he has had limited experience with SORT. Many officers’ active gunman training is limited to computer-simulated scenarios with a laser gun.

“It’s a chance to do something a little different. It’s about time we got some hands-on experience and see what it’s going to be like,” Conrad said.