County to hold major active shooter drill in Hoquiam

Dozens of agencies will participate in the Saturday exercise

Months of planning and hundreds of hours of training have gone into the prep work for a major active shooter drill to be held in Hoquiam on Saturday, April 20.

Hoquiam Fire Chief Matt Miller, incident commander and major planner, said that being ready for an active shooter event, particularly in a school, is incumbent for any department in the modern era.

“It’s been a 25 years since these have become an issue,” Miller said. “It hasn’t gone away. They’re not going away. They’re getting bigger and bigger.”

The county regularly held training events for active shooter events, plugging in the best practices. But the pandemic interrupted that training cycle.

“When COVID happened, it did two things to Grays Harbor specifically. It stopped all the training we were doing on a routine basis for an active shooter. And then, through COVID and toward the end of COVID, Grays Harbor lost a lot of the senior leadership that drove the training and scheduling and planning,” Miller said. “We’re not starting over completely from scratch. However, three quarters of our planning team is new to this. Throughout Grays Harbor fire and EMS agencies, there are so many new people who have probably never done a drill like his.”

Over the last 18 months, county fire, law enforcement, and emergency response organizations have worked to reconstitute that capability, said deputy director of the county’s emergency management division Hannah Cleverly.

“It’s no longer just a law enforcement incident. When you have an active shooter incident, you have many different agencies that are forced to participate,” Cleverly said. “Fire and law working together, creating the safest response for all involved.”

That’s been reflected in a shift in tactics; medic personnel are now integrated into the response, instead of waiting for law enforcement personnel to sweep the building and neutralize the threat, in order to save as many lives as possible, Miller said.

“Not only do we need to address the threat, we need to address the injuries,” Miller said. “As quickly as we can.”

The planning reflects that, Cleverly said, with fire and police as much a part of the planning as dispatch and the schools themselves.

“This is not just a law enforcement exercise. There’s as much of a rescue and fire component to it as the law enforcement component to it,” Cleverly said. “How do we make this work for Grays Harbor County? What works for King County may not necessarily work for us.”

Economies of scale

Grays Harbor may be called many things, but overflowing with emergency response assets isn’t one of them. Whereas a major city has numbers and equipment to throw at a problem, Grays Harbor has to be flexible and familiar with what it does have.

“We can’t throw 100 cops and 100 firefighters at the problem. At the beginning, we might have 10 police and five to eight ambulances,” Miller said. “We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the population. We don’t have the manpower. We don’t have the equipment. We have to do things a little different. We have to adapt and overcome these issues.”

Training the departments by the same playbook, teaching them to work together as interchangeable parts in the response plan, can help work through this, Cleverly said.

“We practice like we would respond. It’s the same for each agency,” Cleverly said. “It’s based on constant updates and changing, as the world is changing. There’s a better practice, there’s a better way of doing things.”

This exercise is a demonstration of that reconstituted planning capability, Cleverly said.

“Those relationships are really what make Grays Harbor agencies successful,” Cleverly said. “When we respond, we know everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, what they’re capable of doing.”

Personnel from local to county to state to federal agencies will take part, with more than 20 organizations signed on, Cleverly said. Integrating everyone from the city of Hoquiam to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enforcement officer taking part in the exercise has been strenuous, Cleverly said.

“A large exercise like this is not something you can create overnight,” Cleverly said. “We are all actively working and meeting weekly if not more frequently. It’s a lot of work.”

The Aberdeen and Hoquiam school districts have been taking part in the planning as well, Miller said, which are new and welcome additions.

“There’s quite a few agencies that are participating. It’s not just as easy as ‘I’m going to show up and run this exercise,’” Cleverly said. “We’re doing this in the city of Hoquiam. We’re doing this in a school with a neighborhood around it.”

Nuts and bolts

The exercise will begin Saturday morning around 9 a.m. at Lincoln Elementary in North Hoquiam, and will involve street closures around the school. Members of the public are not welcome in the exercise, and are asked to keep their distance from the school for their safety and the safety of responders, Cleverly said.

“It is going to be a secure location,” Cleverly said. “We don’t want anyone coming into the area. It could affect the drill, but also the safety of responders and the public. We encourage the public to stay home.”

Responders will drill with the best practices emergency organizations currently have for responding to an active shooter situation, including sending medics in plate carriers in to begin treating casualties immediately, screened by law enforcement personnel.

“One thing we want to achieve out of this exercise is, we want to see the training we’ve done over the last 18 months is effective. But also, we’re looking for things we can improve on,” Cleverly said. “One of the things was the need for fire to have ballistic vests in these incidents.”

Responders will run through the scenario once before resetting after lunch and running through it again with different positions.

“Each session will see the exact same. Residents in that area will expect to see that day an influx of lights and sirens coming to that school,” Cleverly said. “You see things differently when you’re the first one in, versus the sixth one in or the eighth one in.”

This exercise is to be run at half-pace, Miller said.

“It’s a training exercise,” Miller said. “The next step would be a full scale full speed. In this case, we’re not going to have blanks.”

All of this is in the service of a safer county, Cleverly said.

“All of this hits home for us. I have young kids. Matt has a family member that works in the schools,” Cleverly said. “That’s why we do what we do. Whether it’s a fire or earthquake or active shooter or tsunami. We want our community to be safe.”

Contact Senior Reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or