SOUTH SALT LAKE — As teams of police, paramedics and first responders poured through the doors of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School on Tuesday night, their eyes widened at the carefully simulated chaos.
More than 130 volunteer "victims" waited inside. About a dozen people lined the floor of a hallway, crying and covered in bloody moulage body paint to replicate the gore of a mass-casualty attack.
Screams echoed from the gymnasium, where an even larger group waited, as well as from a classroom, filled with teenagers hiding under desks and clutching their mocked-up wounds.
Tuesday's drill was the largest of its kind so far in Utah and the first of six exercises designed to prepare Utah's first responders to save lives in the event of a mass shooting or similar attack.
The way they see it, it's not a question of if but when.
"It's a matter of always being prepared, and the only way you can do that is by creating these realistic scenarios," said Nicole Martin, spokeswoman for the large-scale, multiagency event. "You go through the exercises, go through the process, make it as real as possible, and of course you evaluate at the end."
Two scenarios, a school shooting and a theater shooting, will be staged at different times and under different conditions through the end of the month, made possible through Federal Emergency Management Agency training funds. It is a chance to learn from similar tragedies that have rocked the country, Martin said.
As many as 900 first responders, including members of six police departments and 12 fire agencies, participated in the drill. A long line of ambulances circulated through the makeshift triage center in the parking lot, and medical helicopters picked up the most grievously wounded from a nearby field, all carrying the volunteers to area hospitals where the exercise would continue.
The comprehensive event was designed to test dispatchers, law enforcement, first responders, leadership and medical teams from Salt Lake County and beyond, from the first moment police entered the school until the last patient was admitted to crowded medical facilities, Martin said.
A large part of the challenge would be measuring how well the different agencies could come together at the scene.
Brian Plummer, a South Salt Lake Fire Department paramedic, said the drill was the most shocking and chaotic mass-casualty trainings he had seen.
"Just dealing with a scene of this magnitude, it lets us know how to utilize our resources," said Plummer, adding that he appreciated the chance to train with other agencies. "There's a little bit of confusion, which I think is to be expected with these types of scenes, but everybody is moving with a common goal of evacuating patients to a treatment area. I think it's a great tool for us."
Ultimately, agencies prepared for the emergency they hope never comes.
"You only perform as well as you've drilled," Martin said. "It's working them through this process so that if and when they encounter a similar situation in real life, their bodies know how to react, they know what steps to go through, and they know how important it is they move quickly."
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