BELLEVILLE, NJ – An active threat exercise held on Tuesday in Belleville was invaluable because it revealed ways the township can work to keep its employees safe in the event of an active shooter scenario, officials said.
The exercise started at about 10:30 a.m. with the sound of gunfire echoing throughout the hallways of the municipal building.
A township employee portraying a would-be masked gunman moved about on the main floor, yelling and wielding a faux gun – no real rounds were used in the exercise. Other employees posing as injured victims were scattered in various locations inside the building.
While municipal employees practiced safe evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures, township police and fire personnel, as well as the Community Emergency Response Team, used the drill to help streamline effective responses to emergency situations.
Police officers went room to room, checking for gunmen and assessing “injured” municipal employees.
The exercise was called off at about noon and Town Hall was soon re-opened. There was no interruption to police, fire or EMT emergency services during the exercises and a few municipal employees were stationed outside the building to take the names and phone numbers of residents who went there for various services only to find it closed. Those residents were contacted once the exercise concluded.
Mayor Michael Melham said it became immediately evident that the exercise would yield valuable information that may someday save lives.
He said plans will soon be put in place to rectify some of the issues. The first fire alarm pulled did not engage and the second one fell apart – although it worked. Some of the radios did not work properly, so the fire department personnel did not hear the all-clear call.
Melham said township officials will have to create a standardized set of floor designations inside the municipal building to avoid confusion. People who enter Town Hall through the main entrance may not realize they are actually entering on the second floor.
“So when we were upstairs on what would be the third floor, I heard the radio call out, ‘Shooter on the first floor.’” said Melham, who was an official ‘observer,’ meaning he was invisible to active participants. “We went down one level because we’re accustomed to the main level being the first floor. We actually had to go down to another level, to the basement.”
Melham said there were several positive takeaways from Tuesday morning’s event, including the fact that municipal employees remained calm and recalled their training when the mayor pulled the fire alarm.
“That was a little curveball that we threw into the exercise,” Melham said. “They are trained to stay in place during an active shooter situation, even though the fire alarm instructs people to evacuate the building. Some shooters have used the fire alarm activation as a way to get people to come out into the open.”
After the exercise ended, Belleville Police Chief Mark Minichini said there would be a meeting with the members of the police and fire departments and EMT personnel. They would begin the process of analyzing the results of the exercise.
“We will sit down and ask ourselves, ‘Did we do this right? Can we do this better?’” Minichini said. “There is no right or wrong answer on the first try. At the end of the day, this was meant to educate and learn. We are quite pleased with how it went. This is the first time that I know of that a municipality this size has staged this exercise. Considering that, I think things went very well.”
The exercise was organized not only out of an abundance of caution in the event of an active shooter situation, but also at the behest of the township’s insurance carrier.
Members of Essex County Sheriff’s Department and the State Police also participated, as did representatives from the Clara Maass Medical Center. The exercise was coordinated by Deputy Fire Chief Martin Lutz and Police Captain Nick Breiner.