By Christian Rosario / Editor-In-Chief
SWAT team officers swarmed the hallways. Police officers checked every door. And Emergency Medical Services (EMS) technicians cared for the wounded. For a threat this serious, only full county emergency service support can deter it.
Somerset County emergency services surrounded Raritan Valley Community College Friday August 22 for a full scale emergency readiness drill, which involved a full scale active shooter. Three volunteers acted as active shooters, and close to 50 volunteers acted as hostages and victims.
The drill took up close to one-third of the campus, with activity in the Arts Building, Science Center, Bateman Student Center, Physical Education Building and West Building. These areas, which 20 campus safety officers patrolled, were closed off to students.
Roberty Szkodny, a retired Somerset County police officer, criminal justice professor at RVCC and the school’s director of security and campus safety, compared getting ready for the drill to making a Hollywood movie.
“You have a script, many actors and an exercise timeline,” he said. “Then there are things called injects, which are problems you inject into the drill just when things are starting to go smooth. In this drill, we had a bus break down near a person with a gun. Even though you’re dealing with the gun, you still have to worry about the safety of the bus. In this situation you don’t tell the players what the script is. You don’t tell them how many shooters, or what the actual exercise scenario is. There are a lot of things they don’t know.”
Imran Vahora, who acted in the drill as a passenger on the bus, found the whole experience very confusing. He said that he was not sure why the bus stopped and why police officers ordered him to get out shortly after. He heard something about a “bomb”, and he was then told to put his hands on his head and get on the ground.
DeAnna Nicholson, who volunteered in two scenarios, once as a hostage and once as a shooting victim, said, “It was interesting to be a part of because there were so many things going on. It was eye opening to see how well the emergency services have to work together. There is so much they have to think about.”
Although James Wright, a security guard at RVCC who played one of the active shooters, followed his script and knew the campus well beforehand, police officers still found him within 20 minutes.
“I was in the West Building and was supposed to change into a pair of clothes, sneak out and blend in with regular people,” he said. “Before I got to do that though, the police were right there. When they came in, I think I shot one of them. The other two got me on the ground and searched me, but missed one of the guns I had. Then the SWAT team came a few minutes later, but before they could get me, I shot myself so I wouldn’t go to jail.”
According to Szkodny, the other two active shooters took 1 hour 15 minutes and 2 hours to catch. “On average, active shooters are caught in 11 minutes,” he said. “You want it to be over very quickly. Most active shooters are either killed by law enforcement or kill themselves.”
Even if the shooter is dead, a campus is not safe until every room is checked. “It’s a systematic and methodical search,” Szkodny said. “They check room to room, hallway to hallway, closet to closet, until they do the whole building. Then they do the next building.”
Despite the script’s attention to detail, one SWAT officer said the drill was more difficult than what would happen in real life. “In a real life situation, people would be running in the direction away from the shooter and the campus wouldn’t be as quiet. It would be much easier to find where the shooter is.”
On average, a drill this size takes 18 months to put together. The federal government usually gives money to these exercises, but Szkodny said RVCC put this one together in 3 and a half months and with “no budget”. He said instead of relying on money, he used his relationship with the county emergency services. He is not sure how the school got it done so quickly, but credited “the team” for the results.
At the end of the drill, RVCC President Michael McDonough thanked the participants for keeping their communities safe, and then said, “It’s not a question of if this (an active shooter) will happen. It’s a question of when this will happen.”
“We’re at as much risk (to an active shooter) as any public venue because they’re all open environments," said Szkodky. "Anyone can walk on any college campus in the United States. The threat of school violence is always there. We know that and we can’t stop that. We can only do our best to detect it and deter it. We know that if it happens, we’re ready for it and that is what this exercise is for.”
On what students can do to prepare for these situations, Szkodny said, "First and foremost, self awareness. Don’t take these things lightly. Understand that we’re all at risk for this. Anywhere we go. One must always maintain not only individual safety, but in an envrionrment like this, we have to look out for each other. So in that regard, if you see something, say something. I know that statement is getting worn out, but if you see suspicious behavior, report it to your local police. Tell someone so we can do our best to address that threat."
Szkodny said in the future he would like more help and a bigger budget for the drill. He said the organizers of the event were very pleased with the turnout. “All 19 Somerset County police departments and the Somerset County prosecutor participated. They realize we’re building a culture of safety and awareness. If we need them, they’re going to come.”