ALL HANDS ON DECK

A large-scale, active shooter drill was conducted at Tawas Area High School on Aug. 7, involving various agencies throughout the county. This included the Michigan State Police, other local law enforcement personnel, area firefighters, representatives of all of the public school districts, Iosco County EMS, 9-1-1 Central Dispatch and Ascension St. Joseph Hospital staff.

TAWAS CITY – A large-scale training event – involving numerous agencies throughout Iosco County – was held in Tawas City on Aug. 7, in order for participants to practice what they would do in the event of an active shooter situation.

“In light of, unfortunately, what’s going on in this country, we’ve got to stay on top of it more than ever,” said Tawas City Fire Department (TCFD) Chief Steve Masich, during the Aug. 5 council meeting. “You’re going to see a lot of activity there,” he added of Tawas Area High School (TAHS), which is where the drill was held.

Led by the Michigan State Police (MSP), the training also included participation from other local law enforcement agencies, area fire departments, Iosco County EMS and 9-1-1 Central Dispatch, Ascension St. Joseph Hospital staff and representatives of Oscoda Area Schools, Tawas Area Schools (TAS), Whittemore-Prescott Area Schools (WPAS), Iosco Regional Educational Services Agency and Hale Area Schools.

MSP Trooper Shane Noble, who played a significant role in organizing and monitoring the event, as well as leading the exercises, said there were four separate drills conducted as part of the training, which lasted all day.

He noted that, for two of the drills, “patients” were taken to the hospital and there were upwards of 50 people who volunteered as actors for the event.

According to Noble, the involved agencies have been holding meetings for a year or so to get this going, and he credited WPAS Superintendent Joe Perrera for being heavily involved in the effort.

Following stage one in February, during which an update was given on active shooter training, a second phase in May included participation by fire, police and EMS personnel. Noble said the actual training event – bringing in the school districts and hospital staff – was considered stage three.

He shared that there are a lot of moving parts with such drills, and this type of training helps all involved to be better prepared and learn as many safety precautions as possible to protect the community in an active shooter event.

“This type of drill is extremely valuable to the various agencies.  Although MSP, Local law enforcement, EMS, Dispatch, and Fire fighters from across the county train often as individual entities they don’t often have the opportunity to train together,” stated TAS Superintendent Jeffrey Hutchison. “The collaboration of these agencies is extremely important in saving lives in the event of a true emergency.”

Hutchison participated in the drill from start to finish, noting that other TAS administrators – including the high school principal and assistant principal, middle school assistant principal and elementary principal – also joined in. He advised that office staff, the transportation director, maintenance supervisor, counselor, social worker and several other employees/teachers took part, as well.

According to Hutchison, the numerous volunteers provided a more realistic environment for the law enforcement and emergency responders.

“The entire county benefited from this training,” he expressed.

“As a county we are extremely fortunate to have such dedicated professionals committed to keeping our schools safe,” he added. “Watching these drills I couldn’t help but to be impressed with the seriousness, dedication, and professionalism everyone exhibited throughout the trainings.”

Iosco County Central Dispatch 9-1-1 Supervisor Jason Barnes gave an account of what it was like to be in the midst of the drill, noting that he, Enhanced 9-1-1 Central Dispatch Director Michael Eller and seven dispatchers took part.

“There were four separate drills ran that day and we staggered the Dispatchers times (two Dispatchers for each drill) so that they were unaware of how it was going to happen,” Barnes described.

“We did our best to make it as real as possible and overwhelm all our resources. I was on scene at TAHS for the first scenario to collect information that I could take back and explain the how’s and why’s a little better,” he continued. “In 911 it is all nonvisual and can be confusing trying to figure out what they are asking for or why they are doing what they are doing.”

Barnes, Tawas Police Authority (TPA) Chief Mark Ferguson and others point out that, while their departments have taken part in similar drills, they haven’t done so on quite as large of a scale as they did on Aug. 7.

For example, Hutchison said the TCFD trains several times per year at the closed Tawas City School, with MSP and other local law enforcement personnel also utilizing the facility a couple of times over the past year. However, this was the first and most expansive drill of its kind that he is aware of in this region of the state.

“As a school administrator this was very helpful as we continually consult with local law enforcement to modify our safety practices and facility upgrades,” he shared.

“We have participated in prior drills but not at this scale,” echoed Barnes. “It cannot be stated enough how important these exercises are. There are so many moving parts involved with all of the departments that it has to be second nature or ‘muscle memory’ in case something like this ever happens.”

Masich added that training is always valuable, especially when several departments are involved.

“We must have a plan and continually improve on the plan if needed,” he stated.

“I believe every emergency agency in Iosco County will be needed if such a major event occurred and also must acquire the same training and knowledge,” Masich said.

“This was a very valuable drill.  As recent national news proves, we never know when or where something like this could take place,” stated East Tawas Fire Department Chief Bill Deckett, who said 12 members and three of the department’s apparatus were used during the drills.

Augmenting Noble’s remarks, Deckett said the training was actually the culmination of more than a year of work, including  meetings, discussions, small scale scenarios and more. “So, we have been gaining information and training over the entire year, but this full scale exercise is where we put it all together, with all agencies participating.”

According to Deckett, first responder agencies never know what type of emergency calls they will face. “When a person dials 911, we must respond, and know how to handle that emergency. By training, reviewing, discussing, and training again, we put ‘mental markers’ in our brain so in the event of a real call, we automatically put a plan into action.”

Similar comments were made by Ferguson, who shared that all of the sworn TPA personnel, including himself, participated in the drill.

“I think the drill was a great success and our staff gained a lot of valuable information. We have participated in drills that practiced only the entry and tactical aspects of stopping an active shooter. Leading up to this drill we expanded that to include how fire and EMS would assist in the response,” he stated.

“This drill really makes individual agencies contemplate what roles the other agencies and disciplines are tasked with which makes us all work better together,” he continued.

Ferguson also gave credit to Perrera, saying he was the one who initiated the regular meeting of representatives from all five school districts in Iosco County, law enforcement, EMS, fire and the hospital, as well as other disciplines that complement these agencies.

“From those meeting there have been several significant advancements at several schools in the County including many security measures and procedure updates,” according to Ferguson. “It also resulted in the training I mentioned earlier which was needed to get all first responders up to speed and ready for this drill.”

Ferguson said he has been part of other groups which have discussed similar ideas, but that nothing actually happened until Perrera stepped up and initiated the meetings.

Ferguson also praised those from the MSP, saying this agency took on the huge task of orchestrating the training and scenarios. 

Iosco County Sheriff Allan MacGregor said there were four members of his department who participated in the latest drills, and that staff has undergone similar training in the past.

He noted that, in smaller areas, all agencies have to work together as a team. Training events such as the one at TAHS help EMS and fire department members learn about additional ways that they can assist law enforcement in such situations.

MacGregor said the public should know that all of the responders throughout Iosco County are conscious of the possibility of an active shooter – and should find comfort in the fact that, if this were to occur locally, the departments have been trained for this possibility.