Through the looking glass

“Man with a gun, entrance B-9!”

When you hear it over the high school’s intercom system, it’s impossible not to feel a chill down your spine—even knowing that it’s just a drill.

“Well let’s lock the door,” said Doug Lischner, a music teacher in the district.

“But can’t they shoot the lock?” asked Linda.

“Should we grab the fire extinguisher?” asked Darlene.

“And then what? Even if we barricade, the door opens outward,” said Tracy.

The answers to their questions— “yes,” “yes,” and “fire code dictates the doors have to open that way, but you should still try to make it hard for the intruder to enter”—were not answered until later at the debrief. But in the moment, they just hung in the air, as it slowly dawned on us that our children could be in a real-life situation where they are asking these same questions—and that their teachers’ leadership, their teamwork skills and training like this would be the only tools available to help keep them from real harm.

“Come on guys. Are we all in this? Because what we need to do is discuss our plan real quick. Every teacher would have a plan. And then let’s do it,” said Bridget.

The volunteers launched into a flurry of activity as the fire alarm began to sound. Within a minute, the door was soundly barricaded, the hall windows were blocked by an array of classroom furniture and each of us found places to hide amongst overturned tables.

Then we waited.

The purpose of the active shooter simulation on Tuesday, July 17, was for our local first responders and Mt. Lebanon School District leaders to put their emergency training to the test in the newly renovated high school building. Eighty community volunteers portrayed students, teachers and parents in two separate one-hour simulations. The first scenario was staged in the science wing and the second took place in the two-story open Center Court, which provided two different environments for the first responders. In both situations, the “shooter,” represented by a dummy, was already deceased upon police arrival.

Organized by Mt. Lebanon Chief of Police Aaron Lauth, the drill included Mt. Lebanon’s police and fire departments and members of police and fire departments from 14 other communities in the South Hills Area Council of Governments; Medical Rescue Team South Authority and St. Clair Hospital. After medics triaged the “victims” at the casualty collection point during the first drill, they were loaded into vans and rushed to St. Clair Hospital, where hospital staff continued the simulation.

“There were a lot of moving parts, but we are trying to plan for the worst-case scenario and we needed to do it together as a group,” said Lauth. “That’s why we planned this today. We can’t have an incident happen and it be the first time for us.”

“We were fortunate to have assistance from [all the groups involved], but we had to scale it down so that today’s exercise would be effective. Today we had 80 students, but in reality, there are thousands spread across an entire building, rather than just a wing,” said Lauth.

School district administrators and principals also had an important part to play. Each of them began in their respective offices and had to evacuate the building to set up a command post. From there, they assumed their emergency roles. For example, Cissy Bowman, director of communications, arrived at the command post and immediately began working through her department’s protocols for crisis communication. She was under the supervision of superintendent Tim Steinhauer, whose job was to implement and coordinate all emergency efforts from the command post.

“When we get to the command center, one of the most critical elements in managing a crisis is for all the players to know each other and be able to work together even before a crisis hits,” said Bowman. “We are really lucky to have that cooperation with police, fire and MRTSA.”

First responders discuss the action plan during the active shooter drill.

Prior to both simulations, Lauth addressed the volunteers to explain their roles—some were to evacuate as quickly as possible at the sound of the alarm. Others were meant to go into lockdown, or hide until addressed by a police officer. Some from both the evacuee and lockdown groups also received injury cards, meaning they were to act accordingly and wait to be seen by a medic. This helped to simulate students’ responses, which would hopefully be informed by their ALICE training in a real-life situation.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, and it is the most widely accepted formula for civilian response to an aggressive intruder. The police department regularly provides ALICE training to all of our local schools and most other large businesses and organizations in our area.

“What we would encourage all students to do is to get as far away from this building as fast as possible,” said Lauth. “The way that we train, you have three options available based on the information you have: 1. Evacuate, 2. Lockdown, 3. Fight … for the situation in the classrooms [the first simulation], the bad guy was right outside the door, so the teacher made the right decision to barricade and wait for the police to come.”

But how can you trust that the person pounding on the door is really a police officer?

“Teachers have been trained that nobody comes in or out,” said Lischner, as we waited behind our barricade in Room C318 during the first simulation. “It could be police, it could be another child looking for safety, or it could be the shooter. It’s definitely a decision you don’t want to have to make.”

Aside from the incessant beeping of the fire alarm, all was quiet where we sat, huddled, waiting for help and considering the implications of such a policy.

As part of the simulation, Lauth sounded the initial alarm by using a code that gives all teachers and staff access to the school’s intercom system. The alarm was the cue for the volunteers to begin their assigned student responses, which is what we were trying to do in Room C318.

Meanwhile, the police department’s first mission is to enter the building, identify the assailant and neutralize the threat, if necessary. They use information gleaned during the initial dispatch, which, for the purposes of the drill, included information about the shooter’s clothing, gender and general appearance.

First responders move injured victims to the casualty collection point for triaging.

Once that occurs, they would secure the scene and begin evacuating students in lockdown. Next, the medics arrive and begin caring for the injured. They would also create a casualty collection point, where the victims would be triaged and the most critically injured would be evacuated from there first. In Mt. Lebanon, victims could be sent to five different hospitals—St. Clair, UPMC Mercy, Allegheny General, UPMC Children’s or UPMC Presbyterian.

After only a couple minutes of waiting in silence, we started to hear the distinct sound of booted feet approaching the classroom. Then, we heard shouts, “Put your hands up!” and “Get against the wall!”

The sounds moved past the classroom as the police officers identified the shooter, who was on the ground further down the hallway. We sat and listened as the officers were evacuating the students in nearby classrooms, until we finally heard someone jiggling on the door of C318.

“Is anybody in here injured?” said an adult male.

“Yes, two!” shouted Bridget.

“Ok, I need to get through,” said the male voice. Though we probably should have done more to verify the identity of the speaker, we were anxious to leave the classroom. The volunteers jumped up and began breaking down the barricade.

First through the door was a medic, who started a tourniquet on a volunteer with an injury card. A police officer with a gun covered us and guided the rest of us into the hallway with the words, “Keep your hands up!” Several officers accompanied us at gunpoint as we weaved around the medics and victims on the floor. They guided us to the exit at B-9 and then around the side of the building until we were outside the main entrance to the school. We waited there for the purposes of the drill, but, in reality, students would be advised to leave school grounds and get as far away from the building as possible.

During the debrief that followed, we learned that the first responders experienced some glitches. For example, the police officers from neighboring communities had difficulty entering the building, as the doors lock automatically and they do not have the same access cards for the building as the Mt. Lebanon police. They also took note of equipment deficiencies and some collaborative and communicative improvements that would hopefully be resolved during the second drill.

“This one will be a similar situation, but the bad guy is already in the room, right here in Center Court,” said Lauth. He explained how the first responders would enter from B-9, where the evacuees would be exiting, and make their way to center court. This simulation required 20 more volunteers with injury cards, and the lockdown group was instructed to hide wherever they could in the large cafeteria area until they receive further instruction from a police officer.

The second scenario began almost the same way as the first: “Man with a gun in Center Court!” a voice shouted over the intercom. Then another, less audible voice, “Students and staff, follow ALICE procedures!”

Evacuees started running, the lockdown group hid behind columns and under tables and the injured sprawled over chairs and on the floor. As soon as the fire alarm began sounding, volunteers were surprised to feel the air conditioning turn off and see massive fire doors closing around the central staircase—the building’s automatic response to a fire alarm.

Volunteers simulate their assigned roles in the Center Court so that the medics can practice their responses in an active shooter situation.

We waited once again, with the alarm blaring, for the first responders. In less than five minutes, dozens of policemen suddenly came around the corner, weapons raised, where the grand staircase meets Center Court.

“Multiple people down,” an officer reported into his radio.

“Where is the shooter?” another policeman asked a group of people hiding near him.

Those volunteers pointed the officers in the direction of the shooter, who was on the floor near the cash registers. They ignored the cries of help from the “injured” volunteers, and made their way toward the shooter to ensure that the threat had been neutralized.

Once they confirmed that the shooter was deceased, they began securing the area and evacuating the rest of the students.

“Get your hands up! Go towards that wall,” gun raised, the policeman indicated in the direction of the curved wall directly underneath the student activities office. When a sizeable group had gathered there, we were carefully led out of the center court and down the hallway toward the B-9 exit with our hands raised, hugging the wall at times to stay out of danger.

From there, an officer directed us toward the same meeting point outside the main entrance of the school. Those with injuries who were able to be evacuated waited there for a medic. For the rest of us, the simulation had concluded—the uninjured students would be leaving school grounds at this stage in a real-life scenario.

“The drill was very intense. I could see how it would be quite terrifying in a real-life scenario, especially for elementary school children,” said Steve Peterson, a Mt. Lebanon crossing guard in the volunteer lockdown group. “Unfortunately this is something we have to be aware of. It’s part of our lives now.”

“This felt real. You could see people with their hands up, people shouting,” said Darlene Clark, volunteer in Room B318 whose daughter is a rising senior at Mt. Lebanon. “My daughter has mentioned lockdown drills to me before, and I didn’t really know what she was talking about. Now that I know all of this training, I feel a lot safer.”

“This was a well-coordinated, proactive approach,” said Lisa Lizun, director of service coordination at the Allegheny Children’s Initiative. She was one of more than a dozen county representatives observing the drill to help with the volunteers and offer advice.

“Other districts have drills that look similar. They each have their own standard protocol … This one had an interesting volunteer approach. For example, at the drill in Bethel, they used district employees,” said Lizun, “But here, you have the community. And I think it helps people to understand and get a sense of calm that the district is prepared.”

Bob Gaetano, a retired Mt. Lebanon fireman, decided to volunteer for the drill because he was interested in experiencing a situation from a civilian’s perspective, rather than as a first responder. “During the last drill, I slipped into the stairwell behind a garbage can, and I kept thinking, ‘what is the best way to announce myself without something negative happening?’ Eventually they found me, and I followed instructions from there. But they wound up questioning me on whether I was involved or not because I managed to hide for so long,” said Gaetano. “This really gave me perspective on how decisions are made when you are the victim.”

Within 21 minutes of the initial call, first responders had secured the scene, evacuated the students and removed every injured person from the building.

“We learned a lot of things in terms of response and after-action. The second incident went a lot smoother,” said Lauth at the second debrief. Following the drill, Lauth met with the district administrators at the command post, then the first responders, and finally with the volunteers who participated in the drill.

He explained how, in a real-life scenario, those who were not injured may have been called on to help. He mentioned the Stop the Bleed program, which is a national campaign to train civilians so that they can be helpful in a bleeding emergency situation before professional help arrives. In response to that initiative, many hospitals and EMS departments around the city offer bleeding control classes to teach people the proper use of dressings, compression and tourniquets.

“This activity is critical for our community,” Steinhauer said to the volunteers at the conclusion of the drill. “At the end of the day, this was all about keeping our kids and community safe. I’m happy for our partnerships with emergency services … and appreciate them for always thinking about our safety.”

Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Dr. Timothy Steinhauer explains the school district’s plans for emergency communication.

As the community volunteers quietly finished their lunches and saw themselves out of the building, the focus of the day shifted from tactical response to the theoretical. Leaders from each organization, the school district and the county reassembled in a classroom on the second floor to discuss another critical topic—“We just dealt with the tragedy as it was unfolding, but ultimately, we need to figure out what happens next. Hours, days after the incident,” said Lauth.

For nearly two hours, school district leaders discussed, debated and identified action items based on critical concerns such as:

How do we identify the deceased?”

“How do we account for everyone when the students are being encouraged to evacuate school grounds?”

“How should we handle the media and rumor control, especially because students with smart phones will be releasing information long before the district is prepared to make statements?”

“Should an administrator accompany each of the students who is sent to the hospital?”

“What do we do when parents begin showing up? Especially if we know their child is a victim? What if their child was the shooter?”

“Where and when should we set up a reunification site? At what point do we open a family assistance center, and how long should it stay open?”

“Who will fill my role if I am absent or have become a victim?”

“How do we handle repairs? Who cleans up the blood? When can we reopen?”

“How will we handle grieving staff and students? What about the teachers who will not want to return to work?”

As district and community leaders worked through each question, they were able to find some answers by looking at the real-life tragedies that have occurred in recent years—appropriate because the disturbing number of real active shooter incidents in our society today were at the root of why we were gathered there in the first place.

“At Sandy Hook, many of the families at the [reunification center] knew their kid was dead, but no one was telling them. From a mental health standpoint, that was horrific…”

“Parkland closed for a week. Initially, the campus was a crime scene … it will be days before you can reopen the facility. At a minimum, 48 or 72 hours…”

“Teachers and staff at Sandy Hook mentioned how they wished they had a pre-designated area for a memorial. They received over 4,000 teddy bears and didn’t know what to do with them. How can you expect a grieving staff to deal with that?”

“Franklin Regional had to plan for how the students would come back. Some witnessed a lot of blood … it’s difficult for them to even have a fire drill now…”

Unlike most meetings, which end when you run out of time or have come to some conclusive decisions regarding the meeting’s central questions, this one ended in silence.

“Well, thank you everyone. This has been worthwhile,” said Lauth, into the quiet room. “It’s important that we talk about this, think about it and know what resources are available. I’m all for continuing to test this type of thing. Because unless you prepare, when it happens, you are going to be way behind.”

Photography and video by Sam Oshlag