WEST ORANGE, NJ - What can you say about a spectacularly well-organized Mock Shooter Drill that encompassed local, state, and federal agencies; Montclair State University film crews; special Taser International-developed audio/video technology called Axon-Flex; local and national news stations, helicopters, explosions, SWAT teams, and more? You might say that it was an event that every volunteer and participant, every police officer, and every observer learned from, whether strategically, technically, or emotionally. This was the West Orange Mock Shooter Drill held at Liberty Middle School in West Orange on Aug. 20, and here is their story.
At 8:30 a.m., The Alternative Press arrived at Liberty Middle School, the site of the Mock Shooter Drill that Sgt. John Morella and Officer Scott Smarsh of the West Orange Police Department had orchestrated with Picatinny Arsenal, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense, along with state and local agencies. DHS funded $140,000 towards the drill, and Montclair State University was there to film a documentary. Taser technologies outfitted participants with special cameras, glasses, and tags, to track their personal experiences for training and behavioral footage that would be compiled and analyzed for training purposes.
Adam Goldman, owner of the Dunkin Donuts on Northfield Avenue, donated coffee, bagels, and donuts for participants, volunteers, and guests. TAP was able to go inside and speak to the volunteers, comprised of West Orange teachers, administrators, and students, along with township police. Every volunteer had arrived at 6:30 a.m. and had been assigned a specific role and function. Several of the West Orange School District principals were participants. Liberty Middle School Principal Bob Klemt was a casualty, along with Mt. Pleasant Principal Mike Schiavo and St. Cloud Principal Eric Price. West Orange High School Principal Hayden Moore sustained a "gunshot wound" to the back.
Said teacher Anthony Carsillo of Pleasantdale School, "This is an invaluable experience for administrators and teachers... it is so important." Several West Orange High School students sustained "injuries" or escaped, along with school administrators, through the front door or into the field behind Liberty.
Sgt. Morella, along with Captain Mike Corcoran of WOPD, briefed volunteers prior to the start of the drill. He introduced the three "shooters" to the crowd. What he did not tell them, however, was that there would be four shooters, and the fourth would be involved in a hostage situation. Officers involved in the drill would also sustain injuries. Eventually, all shooters would be contained and apprehended.
The actual drill began around 9:40 a.m. The goal was to make the drill as realistic as possible. The first phone call to 911, received by 24-year veteran dispatcher Chris Babinski, was from a student who told him his friend had a broken leg. "Oh, and there's someone shooting people too," Babinski was apprised. Within a minute, the first units appeared at Liberty. Students participating in the drill, along with parents, continued to besiege 911 with phone calls throughout the incident at Liberty.
"It was intense," said Babinski. "The students all deserve Academy awards."
Dispatchers also had to assist WOPD with communications coordination, even when it concerned an "officer down." Babinski and the 911 Dispatch Team remained emotional long after the drill was completed, and assessed the event as 'life changing'.
Students, most from West Orange High School, described the drill as "really intense" and "realistic." Emily Ali said she was a student in the locker room and escaped from the school into the field behind the school where the helicopters landed to pick up the wounded. "It all happened so fast" said Hayden Moore. I was on the ground and officers were shooting all around me."
A total of 150 responders and participants were involved in the drill, which was so successful that the Department of Homeland Security would like to work with WOPD on a yearly basis. The next venue may be a restaurant, a mall, or some other public venue. Mike Schiavo said, "everything was happening so fast around us... it was so intense." For participating students and administrators, once the drill actually began, "it seemed so real, and we were scared" said Terry Granato. "It was terrifying to hear the kids screaming for help."
Outside the school during the drill, various team and units assembled. K-9, Bomb, and Tactical, along with Medical Units, were at the ready. Essex County's Skywatch, a 360-degree camera, was in place; and medical personnel, including medivac helicopters, were prepared to deal with casualities. Volunteer parents were assigned the task of calling 911, and creating a disturbance at the scene. Those parents included Steven Savage, who has two twins at Pleasantdale; Sue Ruffino, who has a daughter Rachel entering sophomore year at WOHS; and Cathy Franco, whose son, Deane, a student at WOHS, was a casualty. Once some of the administrators inside the building were 'released' they attended to parents, and parents said their presence was 'helpful and calming because they really knew what was going on."
Once the drill ended, the volunteers were debriefed and asked to fill out comment forms to assist in the compilation of information. Morella then met with reporters to provide additional information and answer questions. Overall, he was pleased with the drill, noting the response time to calls placed to 911 was extremely quick, about one minute from the time the first call was placed to the time a vehicle arrived on the scene. "There is no perfect plan" Morella said, and noted that one weakness to be addressed was the level of communications between departments that may operate on different frequencies.
It will take eight to 12 weeks for Picatinny Arsenal and WOPD to collect and parse all information collected from the Taser Axon-flex headpieces and the 100-plus cameras placed throughout the school.
The West Orange community and participating county, state, and government outlets came away from their own team and personal experiences with the knowledge that they had gained invaluable insights and training in protecting children and adults from the devastating impact of unimagineable attacks such as this. Various police agencies and first responders all agreed that this was 'the most realistic experience we have had to date' on shooter drills.
Mayor Robert Parisi, who arrived on the scene, said "These type drills are an important part of our preparation in keeping residents and our schools safe. Police Chief James Abbott and his staff and Police Sergeant John Morella, have put together an extensive training exercise with various law enforcement entities and we are proud of this initiative. We hope the need never arises to rely on this training but it is important to prepare and coordinating a large-scale operation is an important part of that preparation."