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Ill. fire dept. changes active shooter response methods to save more victims

Instead of waiting to give medical attention to gunshot victims a block away, Springfield responders will go in with police officers to be able to give immediate care


By Crystal Thomas
The State Journal-Register

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — In the basement of Trinity Lutheran Church Thursday, Springfield police officers, armed with guns, ushered in three Springfield firefighters wearing bulletproof vests and neon orange medical kits.

Lying in the different rooms were firefighters playing victims. Red stickers mimicked gunshot wounds.

With no active shooter in sight, the police officers gave the firefighters free rein to tend to the victims.

“We are simply going to treat, treat, treat as far as we can go,” Battalion Chief Jerry Pettit announced to the firefighters in the room.

Thursday’s drill was one of several conducted by the Springfield Fire Department in the church basement. In the course of three days, more than 150 firefighters were trained in the new way the Springfield Fire and Police departments are going to handle active shooter and mass casualty events.

Now, instead of waiting to give medical attention to gunshot victims a block away, firefighters will go in with police officers to be able to give immediate care. While other Springfield police officers focused on stopping the shooter, “rescue task forces” made up of police officers and firefighters would enter “warm zones” — secured areas with the potential for danger — and focus on the victims.

“Firefighters have been traditionally taught to stand down during an active shooter event, to stage blocks away and to wait until police officers have secured every nook and cranny of the building,” Springfield Fire Chief Allen Reyne said. “We’ve learned through other people’s tragedies that that isn’t the best practice, that there had been people who had been survivable victims who ultimately bled out waiting for rescuers to enter the building.”

Reyne was referring to the slew of mass shootings in the last couple of years.

A study conducted in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people died, found that 16 victims might have lived if they had gotten care with 10 minutes and reached a hospital within an hour. A Propublica investigation found that the Orlando Fire Department had a plan in which firefighters would enter “warm zones” with police and had purchased bulletproof vests, but momentum to enact the plan stalled and training was never implemented.

However, at the request of the chief of the Orange County, Florida, Fire Rescue Department, the National Fire Protection Association created new standards last year to address active shooter incidents, which included rescue task forces entering warm zones.

Changing methods, while new to Springfield, is happening globally, Reyne said.

“It’s a reasonable risk for people to take to go into those warm zones with an armed escort,” Reyne said. “It’s no more risky than going into a building that is on fire.”

Heather Moore, who Reyne named division chief of training in April, said implementing the new model was one of her top priorities. She stressed the drills were not reactionary to any particular threat.

Planning the training took months and in order to be effective, each component of the response was broken down into smaller drills, she said. She referred to each phase of training as “crawling, walking and running.”

In early October, first responders and District 186 teamed up to crawl through two active shooter scenarios in Springfield High School.

“We are now in the walking phase,” Moore said, of this week’s drills.

Other than training, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle — protective equipment for the firefighters — fell into place within the last two months. The Foreign Fire Insurance Board unanimously voted to spend about $15,800 on 20 bulletproof vests and helmets to have on hand in case of an active shooter situation, according to firefighter and board treasurer Eric Jaeger. The board, made up of active and retired firefighters, is independent of the city and controls a fund supplied by taxes paid by out-of-state companies that sell fire insurance policies in Illinois.

With Moore’s blessing, Jaeger began to research protective gear and procedures.

Part of his research included exchanging emails with a deputy chief at the Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Department who helped manage the response to last year’s mass shooting during the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.

The quest for preparedness was personal to Jaeger. Close friends of his who live in Springfield were two of the hundreds injured that night, he said.

“I believe there were people with the attitude, ‘Oh, that couldn’t happen here,’” Jaeger said, of the Las Vegas shooting. “Now, we see it could happen anywhere.”

Twenty-two kits were purchased through a $9,400 grant provided by Memorial Medical Center Foundation. Instead of the large duffel bags full equipment firefighters normally carry, the kits can be slung around their waist or chest and contain only the supplies needed to stop life-threatening bleeds.

Speaking the language

While new, donning the protective equipment wasn’t the most important part of Thursday’s exercise. It was communication, Pettit said.

A misstep in cooperation between police officers and firefighters could prove fatal.

The week’s drills were a way for the two agencies, which often work independent of each other, to literally learn each other’s language.

“You are from two different worlds,” Pettit told the firefighters, emphasizing the need to forego assumptions.

If a room was “clear” for a police officer, it meant no shooter. For firefighters, it meant no victims, either. “Casualties” for firefighters only included victims that were alive while police officers often only count bodies.

Even the definition of “fire” was contested. When police officers said “fire,” firefighters learned they meant “gunfire.”

In each task force, police officers calls the shots. Sgt. Joe Behl, the police department’s training coordinator, went step-by-step in explaining the reasons behind why he directed firefighters where he did. The task force could only remain in areas that police officers can defend.

“If no ifs, ands or buts,” Pettit said during the drill. “If they say we move, we move.”

“It will suck but we will embrace the suck,” Behl quipped.

Unlike most medical calls, during mass casualty events, firefighters will be asked to “plug and patch,” Pettit said.

“The goal is to try to do the most good for the most people,” Pettit said.

One of the safety training police officers, Chris Stout, reminded firefighters of the need to move fast and use fewer supplies than they would during a normal medical call. In entering a building, the number of casualties are unknown and firefighters can’t leave to resupply. He used the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 as an example. There, the gunman killed 28 people within 10 minutes.

“This is a paradigm shift for all of us,” Stout said.

While only four police safety officers were present during Thursday’s training, Behl said he expected more police officers to get training on how to move as a part of rescue task force come spring.

“We didn’t want it to be a learning curve on both sides,” Moore added.

Copyright 2018 The State Journal-Register