Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Kootenai first responders, school staff practice active shooter scenario

Staff Writer | June 13, 2024 1:09 AM

SPIRIT LAKE — A piercing alarm blared and blue lights flashed overhead as armed police hurried through the halls of Timberlake High School on Wednesday morning, weaving from classroom to classroom. 

“Lockdown,” said a voice over the loudspeaker. “Locks, lights, out of sight. Lockdown. Locks, lights, out of sight.” 

Outside, the sun beat down on dozens of students and community members who had volunteered to roleplay as victims of a shooting. Some were spattered with fake blood, calling out for friends as Spirit Lake Fire and Rescue personnel triaged them.

The scene unfolding at Timberlake High School was a simulated mass shooting, designed to give first responders, school staff and community members a chance to practice what to do in a realistic emergency scenario.

Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris said the multi-jurisdictional exercise was the most comprehensive one ever conducted in this county and months in the making.

“No community is immune from this,” Norris said. “We have to train for this event and many other events that we don’t want to happen.”

The Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management coordinated the exercise in collaboration with local, county, state and federal agencies, as well as Real Life Ministries. The church was a secondary location where parents simulated picking up their children after the event.

In the event of a school shooting, Norris said, local police won’t wait for backup to arrive before acting. Instead, he said, police are trained to form a “contact team” with whoever is present — this could be a single officer, the first to arrive at the scene — and approach the source of gunfire.

“The quicker we engage the suspect, the fewer people die, and the fewer people are injured,” Norris said. 

Lakeland School District Superintendent Lisa Arnold was present for the exercise. Though she hopes a mass shooting never occurs in North Idaho, she said it’s crucial to prepare for such an emergency.

After more than 30 years working in education, Arnold said she’s keenly aware of the threat of school shootings.

She recalled hearing news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, when 26 people were killed, 20 of them children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old. It hit close to home, as Arnold was an elementary school principal at the time.

“This has been — since Columbine, really — something that’s really heavy on my heart,” she said.

Arnold advised parents to talk to their kids about what to do during a lockdown or other type of emergency.

In elementary school settings, Arnold noted, drills don’t focus on the possible reasons for a lockdown. Rather, they train children to respond to an alarm by getting to the nearest classroom and remaining behind a locked door.

Locked doors are key, Norris said, because an intruder is often looking for ease of access.

“If the shooter can’t get into that classroom because the door is locked, they’ll go on to the next one and the next one,” he said.

For middle school and high school students, Arnold encouraged parents to ask their children what they’ll do if they hear a lockdown alarm. This is to confirm their children understand their school’s emergency procedures.

Most teachers are gentle people at heart, Arnold said, and they love their students. She said teachers in the Lakeland School District are trained to be “ready to fight” if necessary.

“We ask a lot of our teachers when we ask them to look at what they can use as a weapon against an intruder,” she said.

Training like Wednesday’s full-scale exercise can help school staff build “muscle memory” that will help them act quickly and decisively in an emergency, Arnold said.

“If you have to stop and think about how to respond and what comes next, you waste time,” she said.

Norris agreed, saying the goal of these exercises is to reduce the chaos during a real emergency.

The training leaves room for staff to exercise their best judgment in the heat of the moment. For example, Arnold said, if a teacher believes it’s safer to flee the building with students than to remain in a classroom, the teacher should do that.

“We have to empower them to make those decisions,” she said.

Sarah Long, preparedness coordinator for the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management, encouraged community members to sign up for the county’s free emergency notification system. Users receive updates about natural disasters, evacuations and other important information.

“We can’t alert you if you’re not signed up,” she said.

Sign up for Kootenai Alerts at www.kcsheriff.com, under the emergency management tab.

   Police assisted volunteers who roleplayed as victims of a shooting Wednesday.
    Police assisted volunteers who roleplayed as victims of a shooting Wednesday.

  First responders practiced triaging victims during a training exercise Wednesday.