‘Make them think under stress’

About two weeks after 19 students and two teachers were shot and killed on Tuesday, May 24, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the question remains how Grays Harbor County would respond to such a horrific incident.

The answer, according to Aberdeen Police Department Sgt. Art Laur, and Aberdeen Fire Department Chief Tom Hubbard, is providing proper training, equipment, tactics and real-world scenarios to the first responders throughout the county. They spoke to The Daily World on Thursday afternoon, June 2, to talk about the county’s response.

Laur and Hubbard also sounded confident in their staffs to respond as needed to such an incident.

“I have provided our officers, and our team of fire arms instructors have provided our officers with training, techniques, and equipment,” Laur said. “We’ve used that equipment in scenario-based training.”

Laur said he is a “huge” believer in scenario-based training, which puts officers in a simulated real-world situation. There are different levels of training the officers go through, which is why Laur sounded confident.

“The only way I can be fair to our officers is if I have to put them through this kind of training,” Laur said. “I have to make them think under stress. How do I put them under stress? I simulate it.”

The simulations include “victims” calling for help, and how the officers have to follow the procedure, which starts with stopping the armed threat. There are tweaks to the procedure based on the situation, because not all active shooter situations are the same.

On April 28, 2018, Grays Harbor College hosted more than 100 police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel for a fictional active shooter scenario that included personnel from Montesano, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Cosmopolis, Ocean Shores, Westport, McCleary, the Gray’s Harbor Sheriff’s Office, plus the Quinault and Skokomish tribes, and those from Lewis and Mason Counties, for the drill.

There have also been other training sessions in Aberdeen, McCleary, and Elma.

“It’s huge that we give them realistic training,” Laur said. “The goal behind realistic training is that way, God forbid the instance should happen, in their brain they’re not making stuff up. They’re thinking ‘I have been through this, this worked for me.’”

But, until such an incident transpires in Grays Harbor County, Laur said he doesn’t know until they face such a situation.

Hubbard agreed with Laur about how crucial it is for the first responders to have the tools, knowledge and the training. He was clear that knowing the system and knowing that other firefighters and police have their backs is crucial.

“Everybody understands the system, so there’s not one or two people making the decision and throwing the situation off because everybody knows, ‘Stop the threat, stop the killing, stop the dying,’” Hubbard said.

Hubbard said seeing the situation before, even though it’s simulated, allows the first responders the confidence, and muscle memory, needed to respond to the incident.

“I have full confidence in our people and the system, our training, and our equipment, and our methods,” Hubbard said. “I hope we never have to put it to use. I hope we just keep training on it and that we never have to go there, because it will be a horrific event for the responders, for the community. You don’t pick up the pieces from this. It’s devastating.”

The first steps for a proper response to active shooter incidents were made after the mass shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 15 people were killed. Laur explained the former plan, which included calling the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to show up. Police would surround and wait for SWAT.

“Shortly after Columbine, law enforcement realized, ‘We can’t do that,’” Laur said. “If we’re sitting outside, people are dying inside and that needs to stop.”

Laur said Aberdeen police started initiating an “active shooter response,” which included training officers on what to do, how they’re prepared and equipped, and what techniques they’ll use in case of an active shooter.

“We need to react,” Laur said. “We don’t have the luxury of time. If we sit back and wait, people die.”

Laur said being prepared all starts with communication, and cross-training between fire and police.

Hubbard recalled what led to the start of the latest training advancements for not just Aberdeen police, but Aberdeen fire: the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 students and six teachers were killed.

Laur said he remembered Hubbard called him because the two departments had to have a meeting about improving their response to a potential shooting.

“Myself and a couple members of our command staff (walked in) and chief had the news (broadcasting) in the background,” Laur recalled. “(The) school shooting was going on and he said, ‘We’re not gonna let that happen.’ That started our process.”

Laur explained part of the planning process that went into the county’s current active shooter procedure.

“Part of our training was the fire department shows up for our training as well, so when we’re doing basic training for our patrol officers, the fire department is getting our basic training,” Laur said. “So, we know A through Z what we expect of each other and how we’re gonna do it.”

Training then expanded throughout the county.

“One thing we realized is patches don’t matter, badges don’t matter,” Laur said. “We’re all under the same thing. In some of these scenarios, it might be one of my newest officers (who) shows up, goes patch to patch with (AFD’s) battalion chief and starts working on the process.”

Laur emphasized how communication is the key to solving an active shooter situation, and solving it with a unified command. That means knowing he doesn’t have to go through different channels to communicate with Hubbard. Laur can just ask him what he thinks.

The county follows a national model on how to respond to an active shooter call, but for the agencies in Grays Harbor County, staff has to alter the plan a little to meet its needs, because there are fewer personnel.

“Once again, Grays Harbor does more with less with police and fire,” Hubbard said. “We make it happen. It’s nothing but impressive.”

The training includes practicing with rescue teams.

“We would have a victim down and we would practice going in, getting that victim, treating them quickly,” Laur said. “It’s down and dirty medicine… (We have to) quickly stop the bleeding, and (then) we’re moving on. We’re getting them out.”

The combined training has helped build a bridge between fire and police, both Hubbard and Laur said.

“Everybody knows each other and we know what we’re doing, it’s just been huge,” Hubbard said. “That collaboration has been awesome.”

Laur said the training continues to adapt. When a shooting happens elsewhere, they talk about it and see what worked and what didn’t.

Hubbard, whose final research paper for his executive fire officer program was fire department response to an active shooter, knew the standard fire department response of staging out of the way until law enforcement says ‘It’s all clear, it’s all safe, and you can come in,’ was not enough.

While Hubbard made it clear that AFD would never be the first one in, as they are not equipped to handle the “hostile” environment, they would be right there when it’s time to go in and rescue the injured and dying. That’s what “Warm Zones,” are for — where there’s still something going on there, but it hasn’t been completely cleared.

Laur pointed out that it can take hours, even days for an “All clear” call to happen. And as Hubbard explained, there are two simultaneous priorities in such an incident.

“No. 1 is to stop the killing, No. 2 is to stop the dying,” Hubbard said. “That’s where we come in. So it’s a true joint response between police and fire.”

Laur said the start of the planning process involved a trip to Hillsboro, Oregon, where there was a full-scale active shooter scenario. The scenario helped provide ideas, but there was just one hitch: Grays Harbor County is a smaller area with fewer resources, so the question was how to deal with the same scenario with “limited” resources.

So, instead, Grays Harbor County adjusted for that weakness. Hubbard called it an “all-hands-on-deck situation.”

“One thing we realized off the bat is we can’t do it alone,” Laur said. “It’s absolutely impossible to do it alone.”