Police officers from across region train for active shooter response

mcarroll@centredaily.comOctober 23, 2013 

— Gunshots and calls for help spilled from the windows of the Centre County Public Safety Training Center.

Police swarming outside the concrete buildings made it look every bit an emergency, but no one was in danger on this gloomy Wednesday.

Instead, a few dozen law enforcement officers from eight counties were honing their skills, and learning new ones, on how to protect the community in the event that a gunman opens fire.

Officers clustered into small groups, covering each other as they prepared to breach the buildings. Waiting inside were armed actors playing the part of an active shooter.

More shots rang from the buildings after officers entered, then nothing.

It was all part of a three-day training program of classwork and field exercises aimed at providing police with tactics to stop a gunman.

“If you make a mistake, there is a chance more people could die as a result,” said State College police Lt. Chris Fishel, who helped organize the training.

Practicing these scenarios not only keeps responders sharp, but it allows them to learn the latest tactics and threats, Fishel said.

“With different events come different lessons learned,” he said. “With Columbine, we had to change. With Virginia Tech, we had breaching issues. Other events have given us other lessons learned.”

Old tactics, for example, held that police should wait for four to six officers to arrive before taking on an active shooter situation.

“Pa. is so rural that we rely more on the first or second or third officer arriving (having) to go in, find the threat that’s doing harm to people and neutralize the threat,” Fishel said.

Training not only helps hammer home new ideas, but it gets responders on the same page.

“The idea is to get us all on the same sheet of music,” said Sgt. Michael Sapienza, an Altoona police officer who took part in the training.

“Generally when you have an active shooter, it’s a big event and you are calling other jurisdictions in to assist you because not many departments in this area are big enough to handle it themselves,” Sapienza said.

Sgt. John Chester, with the Mifflin County Regional Police Department, said that standardized training is essential.

“This is the first time I’ve met some of these guys,” Chester said. “It’s very important we are all working together as a team.”

Those who attended the training can go back to their home departments and teach officers there. That further spreads the standardization authorities said is critical in responding to large emergencies.

“Whether they’ve been here 20 years or they just got here six months ago, we want to make sure everyone is on the same page,” Fishel said. “Because in this entire county, counting two state police barracks, there are less than 350 police officers. So we expect to be working with everybody from any agency.”

Officers from eight counties, from Centre to Fulton, participated in the training. Money for the exercises was secured by the South Central Mountain Regional Task Force.

Officers carried guns similar in design to their Glock pistols. The weapons fire nonlethal rounds tipped with paint. The round is more accurate than one that would be fired from a paintball gun, and provides more realism.

And even though they were well-protected during the drills, being hit hurts. It perhaps gives officers even more incentive to take the simulations seriously.

“If you do something stupid, you pay for it,” Fishel said.

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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