The workday started out as any other, but at 9 a.m., personnel in Building 103, Air Operations, heard shots ring out as two role player gunmen entered the facility during an active shooter training exercise July 19.
As one shooter burst through the main door of the building, charged up the stairs and took a senior officer hostage, a second gunman entered the opposite end of the building, simulating the shooting of an individual he encountered in the bay of Fire Station One.
Workers in the building did not know beforehand that the exercise would play out that morning.
“Seconds before it began, I walked in with a bullhorn and announced the exercise,” said Craig Buist, Naval Air Station Patuxent River training and readiness director. “I announced it once and only once. The next thing people heard were gunshots. We wanted it to be as realistic as possible.”
While building personnel and first responders had no forewarning of the exercise, the Naval District Washington Regional Dispatch Center had all prior details, as did the emergency information centers for St. Mary’s, Calvert, and Charles counties.
“The regional dispatch center announced over all radio networks that NAS Patuxent River was having an exercise and they put the installation in a training environment,” Buist explained. “We let them know the date, time and location of the exercise. That way, if someone called in gunshots, dispatch would know it’s part of the exercise.”
“We go to great lengths to prevent an exercise scenario from being mistaken for a real-world scenario,” Buist said. “Throughout the course of the event, all communications that go back and forth between the scene, command post and dispatch center are prefaced with ‘exercise, exercise, exercise.'”
As the exercise unfolded, Buist noted that they hoped someone in the building would do what they’re expected to do, and phone the incident in to dispatch.
“If no one calls within five minutes, I’ll do it myself,” he said. “This time, someone called within 45 seconds.”
Police arrived shortly afterward, and a team of three entered the building; their sole purpose to seek out and neutralize the shooters. Other officers secured the perimeter, not allowing anyone in or out of the area.
Once they received word that it was OK to enter, fire and emergency services personnel arrived on scene to aid victims – all depicted by role players – some with more serious injuries than others.
During the exercise, a real-world incident occurred elsewhere forcing the team to take a safety time out.
“We halted all exercise play and made the announcement through the dispatch center so that all participants knew we were in a safety time out,” Buist noted. “The real-world incident was responded to, notification was made to the CO as to what the incident was and how it was handled, and he gave his permission to resume the exercise environment. We paused for a safety time out, were back into real-world operations, then transitioned back to exercise. It’s a very methodical process.”
The end result of the exercise was five victims, including one of the shooters. The hostage taker eventually surrendered and the hostage was unharmed.
Throughout the training scenario, a small cadre of safety observers and evaluators in bright yellow vests surveyed the situation and, afterward, all groups involved shared their reactions to the event and provided feedback on what they saw happen, what went well, and what can be improved upon.
“There are formal lessons learned and after actions developed,” Buist said. “An Incident Action Plan is put together so that training opportunities can be put into place to correct any deficiencies noted, and skills can be improved.”
The active shooter exercise is required quarterly, as mandated by Commander, Naval Installations Command; but Pax River conducts the exercises more often.
“We’ve found it’s very productive, not only for our first responders, but also for workforce personnel exposed to a more realistic environment, and we go one step further by using real weapons firing blank ammunition,” Buist added. “We want the true sound of an active shooter.”
In fact, Pax River trainers have done the exercise so many times, they’re running out of places to hold it and welcome tenant commands willing to allow the few hours of workforce intrusion.
“We’re happy to accommodate if a tenant command is interested in having an exercise done at their activity so their workforce is exposed and can gain some training from it,” Buist said. “It provides valuable exposure and training for personnel in any environment.”
Any command interested can contact Buist at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone (301) 342-9872.