TAYLORSVILLE — Amid nationwide concerns about school shootings, first responders in Utah performed multidepartment active school shooter drills at Salt Lake Community College on Thursday.
The drills integrated emergency medical services and law enforcement in a new tactic called the Rescue Task Force.
Salt Lake Community College allowed Unified and West Valley police and fire departments, along with the Utah Highway Patrol, to rope off a building on the northwest side of campus to perform active shooter simulations throughout the day. Actors pretended to be shooters and civilians, complete with mock wounds made of makeup, to create a realistic scenario for first responders.
Both law enforcement and the acting shooters used a type of nonlethal ammunition for the drills.
During each drill, the starting placement of the acting shooter was randomized, and an initial wave of heavily armed first responders practiced entering the building to find and neutralize the threat without harming civilians. The next waves were Rescue Task Force units, squads of medics in formation with state troopers to treat and evacuate the wounded as law enforcement secured the building room by room.
"We assist the medics in cover and going into what's called a warm zone to treat patients," said UHP Lt. Todd Royce.
A hot zone is where an active shooter is, and warm zones are nearby areas that are potentially dangerous.
Before first responders in Utah incorporated Rescue Task Force tactics, law enforcers would have to make sure the entire area was clear of hot zones before medics could go in to treat the wounded. Officers themselves would have to pass by the wounded to focus on the threat, Royce said.
"If there's an active shooter and there's an active situation going on, time is of the essence. We need to go in and neutralize that threat, because the longer the time goes on the more people are seriously injured or killed in this situation," he said.
"It's difficult for officers to walk by people that are severely injured or dead to neutralize the threat, but that's what we have to do."
After the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1998, first responders updated their tactics. Royce said first responders used to only secure the perimeter of a building and then wait for a tactical or SWAT team to arrive and engage the shooter. But then first responders began training regularly to go in and neutralize the threat immediately, even before a tactical team shows up.
Law enforcement in Utah began interdepartment training to handle active shooter situations in schools around the time of Columbine, according to Royce. They recently added the EMS element to these drills in form of the Rescue Task Force protocol.
"It's something kind of outside our normal scope of work," said Unified fire spokesman Eric Holmes.
"The way I was kind of thinking about it in the past couple months is that not so long ago in our nation, firefighters were firefighters … and (then) we incorporated this EMS or emergency medical services thing into our daily life because it just seemed appropriate for … a combination of fire and EMS," he said. "And (Rescue Task Force) is another one of those evolutions. … It's done out of need. It's done out of necessity for what's going on in our communities nationwide."Comment on this story
Salt Lake Community College spread the word out that authorities would be conducting drills on campus Thursday through numerous media channels.
"When we think about school shootings and shootings at colleges and universities, it's very troubling. And it really requires the college or university to think more in-depth about keeping people safe," said Joy Tlou, director of public relations for SLCC.
Tlou said some of the volunteers for the first responder drills were theater students from the college.