EDW under shooters’ siege

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June 11, 2013
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June 11, 2013
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School may be out for the summer, but the halls of E.D. White High School in Thibodaux were far from silent on a recent weekday as SWAT team members and local law officers moved swiftly in and around the campus’ buildings.

“This drill will help us test our overall preparedness,” said Chief Scott Silverii of the Thibodaux Police Department as he addressed several individuals who were observing the active shooter training exercise. “This drill is the result of a month of communication between agencies. We will be using the same crisis situation plan we used during last year’s bomb scare, but we have made some adjustments to the plan. We are always in the process of improving our emergency plans.”

The exercise, which focused on an emergency situation involving an active shooter at a school location and events following such a situation, included participants from the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office; Thibodaux Police Department; Lockport Police Department; Golden Meadow Police Department; Port Fourchon Harbor Police; Louisiana Probation and Parole; Houma Police Department; the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux; Lafourche Parish Public Schools; Nicholls State University; Thibodaux Regional Medical Center; Acadian Ambulance; Lafourche Ambulance District No. 1; St. Charles Parish EMS; Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department; Lafourche Parish Government Office of Emergency Preparedness; the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness; Louisiana Emergency Response Network; Louisiana State Police; and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Many student volunteers as well as deputies also played parts in the drill, and personnel from the area agencies were on hand to observe the exercise as it unfolded. At the conclusion of the event, agency representatives and participants assessed the outcomes of the training and grading those involved on communication, performance, reactions and decision-making skills.

“This is part of our continued effort to be transparent and accountable to the community we serve,” Silverii said. “Last year someone threatened this community. They were met with the ferocious community spirit we all share.”

Lafourche Parish’s exercise drill was born of regular meetings between area law enforcement, medical, school board and city and state agencies that focus on making children and the community safer, and these types of drills have also been conducted in the neighboring parishes of Terrebonne and St. Charles.

“Our agencies often train for disastrous situations we hope to never encounter, but we must be prepared in case they do,” said LPSO Sheriff Craig Webre in a printed statement. “We will have first responders, actors and even area media outlets participating in the event itself to ensure the exercise seem as realistic as possible to test the participants’ reactions and decision-making skills.”

As members of the local law enforcement and other first responders moved into the area, residents from the surrounding neighborhood came to observe the exercise, which had been publicly announced a week prior to the event to not to alarm anyone.

“We have a fine police chief, and I would like to see everyone support him,” said resident Serena Martin, who had walked over to a parking lot near the school where observers were permitted to stand. “Maybe I’ll learn how to defend myself and the proper response to a situation like this. When people see something like this, they just don’t know how to respond correctly.

“You have to learn to see things. This is a good area, and there is little to no crime. We have a neighborhood watch, and we want to keep it that way. Citizens have a share in solving and stopping crime. It’s not just up to police.”

The exercise officially began with two calls, identified as drill calls, at 8:30 that morning – one reporting three suspicious persons with backpacks walking near Peltier Park and the other in reference to a stabbing at a nearby home and fleeing suspects.

“We have no idea what the drill plan is,” said LPSO spokesman Deputy Brennan Matherne as he held a radio in his hand. “That’s the whole point of the exercise, to deal with a whole situation that you don’t know what is going to happen. It makes it more real.

“These dispatchers at the station are responding to these calls like they would respond to any other call. The situation may start at one spot and move, but it will move to this location and culminate here. We want to see how fast the responders move and get here.”

A dispatcher soon relayed that the school principal had been alerted to dangerous suspects on the loose in the city, and the exercise quickly came to a head when dispatchers called on officers to respond to reports of several injured students and one deputy at the school.

While the drill was one of the largest the parish has ever had, it was not the first, and the parish has also done emergency drills at other schools in the parish.

“On this one, we’ve got everyone possible involved,” Matherne added, as his radio crackled to advise officers that there was a situation inside the school and several other buildings on campus. “We also test our own skills often, and we want to test our ability to respond to this kind of situation.”

“This is a great chance to partner with other area PIOs in the event that something would happen,” said Renee Piper, director of university relations at Nicholls. “We have done four of our own drills on campus, and this drill is great training and a great opportunity to work together. There is always an opportunity to learn with communicating in a crisis situation, a time when we need to get out accurate information as quickly as possible.”

Moments later, officers arrived on the scene and began to make their way carefully around the buildings, attempting to gain entry, as the dispatcher continued to relay information about possible chemical weapons, explosives, gunfire and suspects within the school. Twenty minutes after arriving at the school’s main building, officers began escorting and carrying victims out of the school to a safer location while using police units as shields and to move some of the injured to an ambulance staging area. The transfer of wounded was soon interrupted as dispatchers reported gunfire in the school’s band building, and officers in tactical gear began to move in on the location, eventually making their way inside. Sounds of gunfire erupted from the doorway.

“Drop your weapon,” one of the officers yelled out, and moments later, about a dozen students, some with injuries, were lead from the building and to a safe area off campus.

“We are all here to help each other and make sure all the bases are covered,” Matherne said as he watched the drill continue. “Lafourche Parish is no stranger to any kind of emergency or disaster. We look and learn together. Communication is a big problem in incidents like this, and we can see where problems will be if something were to happen.”

The drill began to wind down as the rest of the students were moved to the ambulance staging area, and officers took the only surviving suspect of the three into custody.

“I think it went well,” said Floyd Benoit, communications specialist for the Lafourche Parish School Board. “I observed a hostage situation going on during the drill, and these officers take this training very seriously. Our police officers and law enforcement are unbelievable and are really professional and know how to handle these situations.

“I hope it never actually happens. We have trained tremendously, and Lafourche Parish is as prepared as can be.”

“Now comes perhaps the most important part of this exercise as we determine what part of the operation was successful while finding areas that need improvement,” said Sheriff Webre, after the drill had ended. “Overall, the exercise has proven to be successful to this point, but now we must utilize what we have learned to better prepare ourselves for such a tragedy which we hope never occurs.”

A police officer escorts victims from the E.D. White Catholic High School band room during an active shooter training exercise. During the drill, three suspects entered the building with firearms and chemicals. The exercise included several area law enforcement agencies.