Active-shooter exercise catches participants off guard

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It happens so fast.

"Even when you know there is an active shooter bearing down on you, and you've spent most of an evening preparing yourself, you can't really react," said 1st Lt. Melissa Baird, a 99th Medical Operational Squadron gastroenterology nurse. "I was more scared than I expected and couldn't do anything during the exercise."

The 99th Security Forces and 99th Air Base Wing Anti-Terrorism offices worked together to put Baird and approximately 100 volunteers through two active shooter training scenarios recently in the Mike O'Callaghan Federal Medical Center's basement and first floor after close of business.

The goal of the exercise was to train selected trainers and build a corps of civilians and active-duty Airmen who have experienced an active shooter scenario. Thirty Airmen were selected as automatic victims and had realistic makeup applied, symbolizing gunshot wounds of varying severity. The remaining 70 were studied by organizers for their reaction.

"People should understand that if they are caught in a situation like this, there will almost certainly be casualties," said Tommy Wilson, 99th ABW anti-terrorism officer. "Your natural response will be hide, run, or fight. And fighting is a very rare reaction."

The shooter, played by 99th Security Forces Squadron Resource Protection NCOIC Justin Vanderhoof snuck into the hospital from an unexpected entrance, announcing his presence with semi-automatic blank fire from an M-4. Bystanders immediately dropped to the ground; some were wounded or killed by the simulated barrage.

For the next few minutes, the shooter stalked the halls, testing doors and attempting to eliminate hospital patrons hiding behind cover. Occasionally, people who escaped their first brush with the gunman were caught unaware when he returned and shot them.

Vanderhoof successfully fired dozens of rounds in both scenarios, with no interruption from bystanders, even though his intended victims were expecting him and were told that fighting back was a viable option in the exercise.

"There weren't any heroes in this exercise," Vanderhoof said. "Everyone reacted as we expected. Hiding, running and freezing were the most common reactions."

Security forces responded to each incident, clearing rooms and, on the second scenario, killing the shooter. Vanderhoof committed "suicide" during the first, shorter scenario.

Prior to the commencement of the exercise, several Airmen eyed their surroundings looking for cover, weapons and exits. Some believed they'd respond aggressively, others were sure they had a plan to stay safe behind doors or out of sight.

"It could be chaotic at first, but we know how to respond," said Staff Sgt. Sharon Gillespie, NCOIC of admissions at the medical center, before the incident. Her Airmen work the front desk, and would likely be the first to see or hear an incident on the first floor of the hospital. Following the incident, her response plan was able to save one patient in the waiting area. Another patient was shot, as scripted by the exercise.

Col. Barry Cornish, 99th Air Base Wing commander, and several senior staff members observed both incidents, along with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which sent several observers.

"I saw an active shooter come in and commit mass murder," said Sgt. Jonathan Simon, LVMPD Northeast area policeman. "This exercise puts my mind at ease. It looks like base security and LVMPD worked quickly together to respond to this incident."

After studying 281 active-shooter scenarios, the FBI determined that most are committed in the workplace by current or former employees who are comfortable with the layout of the place they attack. About half were killed by police and 41 percent committed suicide. A very small percentage of attackers were stopped by armed or unarmed bystanders.

The anti-terrorism office is trying to train 100 percent of the base population in active-shooter response. All volunteers for this exercise were asked to bring back the lessons they learned to their respective units.