Editor’s note: After the Uvalde shooting, it was quickly made clear that the response was, at best, muddled. It posed the question in my mind: If that were to happen here, how would our school district, law enforcement, and other first responders be prepared to respond? Do they know their roles, and how are they training to handle such an event? What systems are in place to prevent such an occurrence, and what systems are in place if it happens? I also wondered what the public can do to help, both in measures of prevention and response should an event occur?
As best we could, The Times sought out local officials, from area schools to law enforcement and other first responders, to answer those questions in these stories. It will not answer every detail due to security issues, but we hope these two articles will better prepare our readers for if such an event were to occur.
It was Columbine that changed things for first responders. Following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, first responders and law enforcement across the country were able to better their response to an active shooter situation. That sentiment was echoed by a number of area emergency officials, including Forest Lake Police Capt. Greg Weiss, Fire Chief Al Newman, Washington County emergency management director Doug Berglund, and Scandia Fire Chief Mike Hinz.
“Pre-Columbine, departments weren’t prepared for that type of an event,” Weiss said. “It opened everyone’s eyes up to a mass shooting event.”
Weiss said in Forest Lake, their response plan “changed drastically.”
Since then, improvements have been made to preventative measures, training, response planning, and even gear and equipment. Those officials have all said that while they know there is always room for improvements, they are confident in their training and their plans that if such an event were to occur in the area, a response would be swift and coordinated.
No situation is ever 100% safe. That’s an understanding each law enforcement official The Times spoke with stressed.
Schools can better mitigate the potential for an active shooter threat by securing buildings and forcing a visitor to gain access through a singular main entrance.
That isn’t feasible for most other establishments, such as restaurants or retail environments, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t mitigation measures in place to help prevent a shooting.
Local businesses and establishments can seek guidance with a threat evaluation. Those evaluations are often offered for free by area city or county entities, including the city of Forest Lake. According to Weiss, some local businesses and churches have worked with the police department to create threat assessments and plans, such as Birchwood Senior Living, both Faith and Hosanna Lutheran churches, and St. Peter’s Church. Those assessments take into consideration entry and exit points, and often point out steps that will help mitigate a threat, some of which are simple and inexpensive, while others can be cost prohibitive. Most chain establishments, such as Target or Walmart, have their own threat evaluation teams through their corporate office, according to Weiss.
Mitigation measures can also be taken for events that draw a crowd, as well. For events, both big and small, action plans by law enforcement and first responders are meticulously created and followed to potentially thwart or respond to an emergency plan.
For instance, during the Fourth of July parade, city officials block off main access points that could give a vehicle enough room to cause harm. Officers are also trained to spot “unusual” activity in the crowd, and that training can help thwart a potential attack. The Forest Lake Police Department also has what’s known as a “QRF,” or a quick reactionary force, that are trained specifically for active shootings.
But outside of policing itself, making sure community members have access to the mental health support they need is key, law enforcement says. Those partnerships include Lakes Center for Youth and Families and Canvas Health.
Wyoming Police Chief Neil Bauer said, “Adult protection, child protection, LC4YF – these partnerships, when we have red flags that come up … we utilize those partners on a community basis to get this person the help they need.”
One of the concerns that has come out of the Uvalde shooting is how several different agencies respond to the incident together: Who is giving orders, who is doing what?
In Forest Lake and across the state, there is a command structure in place so first responders know that information. That’s key, said Bauer, because support will be coming in from all over the area. Having community partners and mutual aid agreements is something that helps cities prepare for such an event, especially for a small department like Wyoming.
Bauer said, “While we may have a handful of officers, [training and response] is really going to be a collaborative effort.”
The state of Minnesota uses a tool called Incident Command Systems. ICS can be used for a small incident, like a highway vehicle collision, or a big response to a disaster.
“We map out what this will look like through the Incident Command System,” Berglund said.“ICS is a nationwide, FEMA-supported management structure for first responders and public safety. It’s a requirement for those that receive federal funding that you operate within the [National Incident Management System] and ICS.”
But Washington County and other counties across the state also use a training system known as CIRAS, which stands for Collaborative Incident Response to Active Shooters. It’s a training system specifically focused on the whole response to a mass shooting, from the first call all the way through, and every law enforcement or first responder in the area is required to participate in CIRAS training.
“CIRAS comes out of Columbine, and the aftermath,” Hinz said. “You’ll watch meetings and after-action plan meetings discussing how they could had more viable victims had they done things different.”
After Columbine, officials realized that lives could have likely been saved if medical attention could have been provided sooner. CIRAS training now focuses on getting fire departments with medical training to enter the active shooter situations before the building may be clear. They enter with the protection of police, as well as a bulletproof vest for themselves, to focus on bringing swift emergency medical attention to the victims and transporting them to ambulances nearby in a safe location.
What is taught in CIRAS is a collaborative effort between law enforcement, fire departments, and emergency medical services. Berglund has worked with law enforcement and first responders across the county to create action plans. In a typical ICS response, the first law enforcement officer on the scene is the one who will be in command of the situation. In a CIRAS response, the first law enforcement officer to a scene has one duty: stop the threat. The second officer on the scene will become the incident commander. Then law enforcement, fire, and medical will begin setting up a response.
“That training is that somebody needs to take control – that’s the ICS part – and we need an organized response to rapidly extract victims,” Berglund. “Church, movie theater, Target, it doesn’t matter where that is.”
Berglund said that the aftermath of the event is actually where he thinks the focus has to be now, and that planning he’s worked on has better equipped Washington County’s emergency response.
“I think because of this recovery plan, it’s exposed the breadth of which an emergency operations plan itself should be,” he said.
Law enforcement and fire departments will train together, oftentimes with Washington County, to prepare for active shooter situations.
“We’ll pick a location and we’ll have a map. We’ll talk about if this is the location, where are we going, where are we coming from,” Berglund said.
Newman said that while they can’t practice in every building in town, they already have blueprints and maps of every building’s layout through fire inspections and that will help inform their response.
In the chaos of an event, there is one big key Berglund wants to stress to the public: Don’t come to the site of the event, even if you have concerns of a loved one that might have been there.
“It’s difficult to say, ‘Please don’t come running to the scene,’” Berglund said. But he said there are several ways in which a swift response could be impacted by loved ones rushing to the scene of the event. The biggest of which is simply traffic, as first responders will also be rushing to the same scene, and more traffic would negatively impact safety for those on the roads, including medical response.
“Fire and EMS, they’re descending on that scene, too. If we do have victims, EMS is going to need rapid egress, and if everybody’s going to come into the scene, it’s going to slow that process down, and it could slow down delivering victims to urgent care,” Berglund said.
Instead, Berglund said, loved ones need to wait for information on where to go before getting in their cars. That information will be communicated to emergency management directors like Berglund, as well as news outlets, including The Forest Lake Times.
Outside of an emergent situation, itself, Weiss said you don’t have to be trained in human behavior analysis to help prevent a dangerous situation. He added that simply paying attention to your surroundings can help you point out something that may seem off.
He noted the video of the bombing that took place at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
“If you’re paying attention … They weren’t acting right. They weren’t acting like they were at a marathon,” Weiss said. “You know when someone’s creeping you out. That doesn’t mean they’re not just an odd duck, but then I remove myself from that area.”
He also added that keeping an eye out for items left unattended, like backpacks, and notifying officers can help thwart a potential attack.
“I’d much rather get a call to a backpack at Lakeside [Memorial Park] that’s nothing than to not hear anything and have someone regret it later,” Weiss said.
Weiss also recommends making sure you have an escape plan at any location.
“Know where the exits are,” he said.
Confident, but always learning
First responders know that there’s no such thing as “fully prepared” for an event like this, but they are all confident that the work they’ve done so far has set them up well for handling an active shooter situation or a mass casualty event.
“I think we’re pretty prepared,” Hinz said. “Doug [Berglund] does a pretty good job in the emergency management side of trying to prepare us for different situations and giving us the tools we need to be prepared for them.”
Berglund said that he has a “high confidence” that through his work, local, county, and state agencies are prepared to respond quickly and cohesively to any potential mass casualty event.
“We moved up that priority level [for active shooter training] a long time ago, and because of that, I think we’re better prepared,” Newman said.
Weiss said that the reaction of the officers on the scene at Uvalde and watching the video that’s come out since was “disturbing” and sad to him, but he said he has full confidence in Forest Lake’s Police Department to respond the way they’ve been trained.
“Sometimes it’s just really bad day to be a cop, but it’s what we’re sworn to do. I have 100% faith in this department that if something were to occur, they would respond,” he said.