First responders train for ‘unthinkable’ at Las Vegas school

Las Vegas police officers surrounded a shooting suspect during a mass shooting drill, coordinated by the Metropolitan Police Department and various agencies in the area, at Shadow Ridge High School on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Shadow Ridge High School students run out of their school during a mass shooting drill, coordinated by the Metropolitan Police Department and various agencies in the area, on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye

A Las Vegas SWAT team members aim their weapons as they approach Shadow Ridge High School where a mass shooting drill, coordinated by the Metropolitan Police Department and various agencies in the area, was held on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
A Las Vegas SWAT team members aim their weapons as they approach Shadow Ridge High School where a mass shooting drill, coordinated by the Metropolitan Police Department and various agencies in the area, was held on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye

Las Vegas police officers aim their weapons as they approach Shadow Ridge High School where a mass shooting drill, coordinated by the Metropolitan Police Department and various agencies in the area, was held on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye

Las Vegas police officers are seen on the roof of Shadow Ridge High School during a mass shooting drill, coordinated by the Metropolitan Police Department and various agencies in the area, on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Las Vegas. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye

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An eerie cloud of green smoke erupted near a car early Wednesday in the parking lot of Shadow Ridge High School, drawing the school’s police officer outside as firefighters arrived to extinguish it.

Then the crackle of gunshots rang out from inside the school.

The resulting frenzy of law enforcement activity was all part of a massive training exercise aimed at making sure the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies are prepared for what might have been called “unthinkable” in a simpler time.

The department frequently conducts such “active shooter” drills, and schools are often used for the training since they are typically sprawling facilities that require time and painstaking attention to search and clear.

But the drill at Shadow Ridge took on on a special relevance in a year that has seen 22 school shootings so far, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo acknowledged.

“So is it a coincidence we’re in a school parking lot doing an emergency management exercise? In some aspects it is, in some aspects it is not,” he said.

One of biggest trainings

Wednesday’s exercise was one of the biggest trainings Metro has conducted with other law enforcement agencies, with Henderson and North Las Vegas police, the FBI, Clark County and Las Vegas fire departments and ambulance companies participating. Metro officials could not immediately say how many entities or first responders took part.

Those who did were not informed of details of the scenario in advance, but it was later explained that the imaginary attack involved two shooters, one barricaded in the school theater and the other in the library. At one point, the person playing the shooter in the theater climbed onto the roof and fired fake gunshots toward members of the media gathered in the parking lot and then toward a Metro helicopter hovering overhead.

From reporters’ vantage point in the parking lot, the response appeared fairly smooth.

The campus officer sprang into action as soon as the initial burst of gunfire subsided, racing back into the school from the diversionary fire to confront the threat as more police vehicles arrived. Those officers also quickly formed into strike teams and likewise headed into the school.

As they did, streams of students who volunteered to take part in the exercise ran out of the building, some with ersatz bloodstains or noticeable limps.

Officers who are trained first to deal with the threat ran past them, though others patted down some of the students or searched their backpacks as they came out.

Phony but scary just the same

Amanda Davis, a 16-year-old who just finished sophomore year at Faith Lutheran, said she thought it’d be fun to participate in the drill. But even though she knew it was an exercise, the gunfire sounded scarily real as she and her friends ran from the cafeteria to the front entrance of the school.

“It was pretty loud, and it just echoed off the brick walls,” she said.

The Faith Lutheran campus is open and Davis said she has thought about how easy it might be for an assailant to get into the school. But she said having security guards on her campus helped allay her fears.

The training, which began around 10 a.m., had mostly wrapped up by 11 a.m., although EMTs continued to help the students playing the “wounded” and officers carried the “dead,” who were dummies, out of the building.

In a real shooting, the school would have been locked down all day so police could methodically check the area for other possible threats and ensure no one was hiding in the building. Then would come the lengthy process of collecting evidence. Most recent school shootings have resulted in schools being closed for at least a week.

Instead, participating agencies were to hold a “hot wash discussion,” to review what they witnessed and discuss what could be improved, said Clark County Fire Department Deputy Chief John Steinbeck, who also serves as the county’s emergency manager.

Ultimately, an in-depth report will be produced that will help inform future trainings, he said.

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