Somerset Police prepared in event of school disaster
By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
If a school shooting like the one in Connecticut were to ever unfold here in Somerset, local police are ready.
In fact, Somerset officers were already going to make sure they were better prepared even before Friday’s saddening news event broke.
“I was at the police station today when I saw the alert on my phone (about the shootings),” said Lt. Shannon Smith of the Somerset Police Department (SPD). “I thought, ‘How ironic,’ because here we are planning our active shooter refresher training, and something like this happens.”
Training on what to do in situations where a rogue gunman poses a threat to civilians is a regular thing for Somerset law enforcement, particularly since the 1999 Columbine case which really brought the issue of in-school violence into the national spotlight.
Since that time, SPD has maintained a comprehensive plan with emphasis on the school system, that starts with the SRO program — School Resources Officers, trained law enforcement personnel in every school.
“We were the first in the county to launch the program full-time, and all of our officers have received not just training from the Department of Criminal Justice, but also in-house training on active shooter response,” said Smith. “Coincidentally, we are in the planning stages over the last couple of weeks on what we call the ‘refresher course’ for all our officers. We’re not required to maintain active shooter training for certification, but it’s one of those things we’ve always taken seriously.”
Just Thursday, police went through a preparedness drill, in which 93 percent of personnel were reached within 18 minutes. This is done to gauge how officers respond to a critical event and how many off-duty officers could reasonably be reached.
Officers conduct training with firearms, self-defense, and pressure-point control tactics with the goal to help disarm a shooter and diffuse a potentially fatal situation. They also maintain a “High Risk Warrant Service Team,” essentially the same as a SWAT Team, that goes into intense situations with equipment needed to withstand whatever threat might be posed.
“On most shifts, there’s always at least one of those (High Risk Team) guys working,” said Smith. “Our guys are trained to respond and mitigate situations as much as we can, and tactical response units are one way to do that.”
Just relying on a SWAT Team’s arrival isn’t enough though, which is a lesson taught by the Columbine shootings, noted Smith. Thus it’s crucial for those in the middle of the situation to do what they can to help the situation in a safe and collected manner.
“In spite of how horrific a situation like that must be, it is important to remain calm,” said Smith. “It is important for somebody to telephone 911 and give a completely-detailed an account as can possibly be given, because that changes how we respond to what we understand is going on inside. We will rely heavily on those first few minutes on the information coming our way to tailor our response, and our response will be immediate.”
Another way in which SPD has improved its preparedness is with the department’s gyro plane which Smith himself uses to fly over town and keep observation on things from above. It’s allowed the department to take aerial photos of schools, factories, the hospital, and other areas that could potentially be the site of a mass casualty incident. All SPD patrol units have these detailed photos showing the layout of these properties handily available in digital form on their laptops, which serves to increase their readiness upon response.
Smith said that “there’s not one of our officers that’s not mentally going through that scenario in their mind, if they were the ones to get that call. It would be a difficult thing emotionally, based on the reports we’ve heard and based on the number of victims and their ages.”
Still, SPD is striving to make sure no such tragedy ever falls upon this area — and if it does, they will be ready.
“We have been doing our part and will continue to do our part to make sure our officers are prepared as they possibly can be to handle a situation like this,” said Smith. “We’re doing our very best.”