NICEVILLE — Sounds of panicked victims echoed through the halls of a building on the campus of Northwest Florida State College on Wednesday as school resource officers carefully moved in to locate the threat.
This time the threat was a part of an active shooter training exercise. But should the scenario ever become a reality, Okaloosa County School Resource Officers like Steve Weyer say such trainings have prepared them to take action without hesitation.
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“I think the most important thing that we’re getting with stuff like this — and we’re doing more of it — is the realism, getting people prepared for the overwhelmingness of multiple people on the ground bleeding,” Weyer said. “Traumatic things that you’re going to see.”
Weyer was one of more than 50 school resource officers who participated in the exercise about a week out from the first day of school and on the heels of the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that claimed 21 lives.
"They know the ultimate sacrifice might have to be paid every day they don that uniform. They take that risk on every day," Sheriff Eric Aden said. “And they know that the expectation of them and the expectation of all of our staff at the Sheriff’s Office is, in the event of something just horrific and tragic like Uvalde, that they won’t wait."
Wednesday's exercise was a part of a four-day training facilitated by the Sheriff’s Office and NWF State, and was open to all sworn officers, with certain days focused on different units, Aden said.
Each SRO ran the exercise individually without any prior knowledge of the scenario other than the tactical skills they had already learned.
“If there’s going to be an active shooter, the largest targets that we see today are our schools. But thankfully we are hardened and we have fortifications,” Aden said. “Aside from our SRT unit, the school resource officers are probably the most tactically trained unit that we have in the Sheriff’s Office.”
The SROs received a 10-minute refresher on tactics for clearing a room and getting in the proper mindset before heading into the scenario.
'It gets your blood pumping'
It began with the sounds of gunshots and screaming — an audio recording Scenario Commander Sgt. Travis Topolski said was provided by the military.
“If there is an active shooter situation in Okaloosa County, the first officer on scene will go in and neutralize the threat,” he said. “There will be no standing by waiting for additional forces.”
As officers rounded the corner, shell casings were scattered across the floor, indicating the suspect was nearby. A group of cadets acting as victims then ran out of a room screaming for help. Several cadets lay on the ground as if they had been wounded.
Topolski said the extra stimulus is meant to trigger a fight-or-flight response similar to how officers might feel in a real active shooter situation.
The biological response causes an increased heart rate, tunnel vision and rapidly impairs the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex, making critical thinking more difficult.
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“That shuts down and it’s literally reverting to training. You can see the effect in the scenario. It’s actually working on all of the participants,” Topolski said. “They have the wide eyes, their mouth is open, and you can see some of them try to control their heart rate, bring it back down with some controlled breathing techniques.”
As they made their way through the room full of wounded victims, officers relied on their training to prevent any injury to themselves and take down the person acting as the suspect. Many could be seen using doorways and other objects as cover.
“They execute a series of tactics as they make entry into the gunman’s room, which increases their survivability and decreases the suspect's survivability,” Topolski said. “It comes down to angles.”
Weyer, who is assigned to the Okaloosa Technical College, was one of the first SROs to go through the scenario Wednesday.
After encountering the suspect, who shot a blank into the air, Weyer quickly rushed in and returned fire with a fake gun. He said officers are trained to take down the suspect before administering care to any victims in order to prevent further loss of life.
“We have people around us that need medical aid, but we can’t do that until we know the threat is eliminated,” Weyer said. “Doing this is very vital because you don’t know what it’s like until you’ve done it, and not many people get that opportunity.”
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During his 20-year career with the Sheriff’s Office, Weyer said he has encountered a number of shootings and traumatic events. But many officers will go most of their career without ever having to respond to an active shooter situation.
“So by doing this, when they do it, the first time is like the real thing,” he said. “That's the kind of stuff that we’re doing that I think is very beneficial, and we’re going to continue to do that. Nothing gets your blood pumping like this does.”
After taking down the shooter, officers then practiced “post-shooter considerations” in which they radioed in to dispatch to say the active threat was over. They gave their location, asked for additional help and began trying to help the victims.
“In this case, there’s so many victims that they can’t actually provide aid to all of them,” Topolski said. “So some of the really good participants are actually having the uninjured assist the injured and start to give them directions on how to provide aid.”
Takeaways from other active shooting situations
The Sheriff’s Office began taking a harder look at school safety after 26 people were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
The shooting prompted former Sheriff Larry Ashley to have a school resource officer stationed at every school in the county.
“He was one of the first sheriffs to do that,” Aden said. “A lot of people thought ‘What are you doing?’ But now we have them in every school, and the expectation is that they’re in every school in Florida.”
The Sheriff’s Office also began holding annual active shooter training exercises around that time. Topolski said they have since bolstered the training with added stimulus and real-life effects.
This year’s exercise evoked many thoughts on the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, for which police have come under national scrutiny after body camera footage illustrated a lack of coordination among the officers and delays in confronting the shooter.
“I think Uvalde was something that just like Parkland and Sandy Hook— all of those tragic events— if there’s any positive takeaway from those, it’s the ability to be able to learn from those mistakes," Aden said. “We make mistakes ourselves. The mistake we’re not going to make is hesitation.”
The shooting was a major topic at the Florida Association of School Resource Officers’ 43rd annual School Safety Conference last month. Weyer attended the conference and said he has pored over the information and videos from the incident.
Although frustrated by the Uvalde police response, Weyer said he believes exercises like Wednesday’s training show that the response in Okaloosa County would be very different. The OCSO plans to evaluate and discuss the Uvalde Commission’s findings next week.
“It’s a tough situation. I read the whole background and watched the entire video from beginning to end and found myself screaming at it, going ‘Why won’t you do something?' ” Weyer said. “I know in my heart that kind of situation’s never going to happen here. There’s nothing more important than kids.”
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Okaloosa SROs train to avoid 'mistakes' of Uvalde, Texas shooting