October 21, 2021

Ready for the worst

Local agencies take part in active shooter training

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland University Police Officer Erik Merlin, left, trains area law enforcement officers, including Cortland Patrolman Ben Locke, Saturday at the County Office Building in Cortland.

CORTLAND — Police cars, accompanied by fire trucks and ambulances, have been going to the Cortland County Office Building the past few weekends.

There was no emergency. They were training to be better prepared to handle one.

For the past three weekends, the Cortland police, Cortland County Sheriff’s Office, SUNY Cortland University Police, Homer police, state police, state Department of Environmental Conservation police, Cortland City Fire Department and TLC Emergency Medical Services ambulance crews have been running active-shooter training drills.

The event Saturday and Sunday was hosted by city police, with Patrolman Pat O’Donnell leading the program. He said it has been going on in the county for more than 10 years, with the training always taking place around February.

Among the six days –– three weekends –– the event took place there were about seven to 20 people who took part.

Along with practicing at a new location this year, O’Donnell said there is more emphasis on treating victims sooner.

For years, police have trained for phase one of the process — find the shooter and keep everyone in the building safe. Now there is more focus placed on phase two, getting to the victims quickly and treating them.

“It is a good natural progression,” O’Donnell said. “We can’t be one-sided with how we train. We need to be well rounded.”

In an active shooter situation there needs to be a multi-agency response, said Patrolman Jared Aiken, one of the instructors. One agency wouldn’t be able to handle an active shooter situation by itself.

Whether it is a school shooting, like the recent one in Parkland, Florida, or at an office building, Aiken said how an agency first responds to that depends on that agency’s policy.

For the city police, they may go right into the building without backup, he said, but it depends on the agency’s jurisdiction.

“There is no standardized procedure,” Aiken said.

The training covers a broad range of scenarios, so the agencies are prepared for what they might encounter, Aiken said.

The three weekend training sessions are a “big undertaking,” O’Donnell said, as there are a lot of teams involved. But there is a wealth of knowledge among all the agencies involved, he added.

The days usually began with classroom briefings, putting procedures in place.

Officers then ran drills, before going into role-playing scenarios.

O’Donnell said there were pretend bad guys and victims scattered through the building. Police worked to stop the bad guy and attend to the “victims.” Once the bad guy was dealt with, firefighters and emergency responders went in the building to help the “victims.” Each had a pretend injury the emergency responders had to treat. Some were able to be treated on the scene, while others had to be taken to the ambulance.

Responders brought in their entire bags and stretchers. Some people had to be rolled out with the stretcher, O’Donnell said.

With so many agencies on site, O’Donnell said they all worked on radio communication, too.

“It is always hard when you bring many agencies together,” SUNY Cortland police Lt. Chris Austen said. “We continue to improve every year.”

He added, every year of training has something different to better prepare each agency for a potential active shooter situation. That is why they always work to update their tactics.

“Our goal is to stop the killing, and save lives,” O’Donnell said.