October 21, 2021

First responders train for active shooters in Homer school

Thunder in the hall

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

SUNY Cortland officer Dustin Morris moves from room to room of Homer Elementary Friday morning making sure there are no other active shooters. Morris was one of more than a dozen first responders participating in an active shooter training, which has been going on at the school during the week while students are on winter break.

Reee, reee, reee, the fire alarm rang.

“Officer down,” came a voice over the walkie-talkie.

Cortland County Dispatcher Stacey McGory picked up her walkie-talkie, acknowledged the call, and sent out a countywide signal indicating an officer had been shot.

The officer was in the main hallway of Homer Elementary School.

McGory along with a dozen officers, several instructors and several emergency medics were participating in an active shooter training Friday at Homer Elementary School. Homer Central School District Superintendent Thomas Turck, Cincinnatus Central School District Superintendent Todd Freeman and Cincinnatus fifth through 12th grade Principal David Phetteplace all observed.

The training, which had been going on throughout the week while schools are closed for winter recess, used blank ammunition from a mock pistol and a fake bomb generated using a blank shotgun round and smoke machine.

Bang, bang.

“Ahhh,” a woman screamed down the hall.

More shots.

SUNY Cortland Police Officer Matthew Howard crept toward the corner of the doorway pointing his gun down one end of the hall as his partner, Cortland City Police Officer Bill Bernheim, slipped into the hallway.

They eased down the hall checking rooms with unlocked doors before moving up a short flight of stairs, shell casings from the trainings before littering the floor.

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

SUNY Cortland Officer Matthew Howard moves down a hallway of Homer Elementary School Friday morning, checking rooms as he goes. He is followed by three instructors. Howard was one of more than a dozen first responders participating in an active shooter training.

At the command station — the Homer Congregational Church next door — an officer, medic and dispatcher worked to maneuver teams throughout the building, creating a space to take injured people while officers continued to clear the building.

“Conversations in the command room were important to me,” Freeman said. “Communication during an event is going to be critical.”

That’s especially true in Cincinnatus, where working with the community and surrounding school districts will be necessary because it will need to find spaces large enough to bring kids when they are evacuated and for parents to go to for updates.

“Everything we’re going to do will take longer,” Phetteplace said. “The logistics of how this would unfold at our school are slightly different than if it unfolds here or at Cortland.”

S.N. Briere

SUNY Cortland Officer Dustin Morris participates in active shooter training.

Every place, every scenario is different, said instructor Robert Pitman, the Homer police chief. But the process remains the same:

Set a parameter. Get the officers inside. Take down the shooters. Get the injured out; give the parents a place to go; update the news media. Evacuate the remaining people inside the building. That all needs to happen.

“I would not send them to another school,” Pitman said about where to send parents for updates. Schools would be in a lockdown, meaning students would be locked in classrooms.

He also said administrators and emergency responders need to think about possible obstacles like the train, which if moving through Homer would split people off from each other.

“Somebody has to think about, one of the first things, getting a hold of the railroad — let’s stop that train,” he said.

That would take at least 15 minutes, said Mike Keegan, an instructor who works for TLC Emergency Medical Services, a private ambulance company.

The week was an exercise. The threat was very real. Active shooters invaded five schools in 2019, down from 11 in 2018, reports the national Center for Homeland Defense. Shooters of all types attacked schools 116 times in 2018, 111 times in 2019 and 23 times so far this year.

The time to prepare is now, Keegan said: “It’s not if, it’s when.”