UNION COUNTY — On Thursday morning the halls of Union County High School were filled with the sounds of gunfire and the screams of wounded and frightened students and teachers trying to escape a man who’d opened fire on them in the school cafeteria with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Frantic calls to 911 reporting the ongoing shooting brought a rapid response by law enforcement and other emergency responders who arrived to find the school in chaos. By the time they arrived, however, the shooter had already fired some 20-30 shots leaving in his wake wounded, dead, and dying victims including the School Resource Officer who’d attempted to stop the attack only to become a casualty himself.
Initially, Union Public Safety Officers, Union County Sheriff’s Deputies, Jonesville Police Officers, and law enforcement personnel from other agencies entered the building in pairs, trying to secure the building so that EMS personnel could enter and begin providing emergency medical treatment to the wounded and evacuate them from the building. They were greeted by frightened/wounded students and teachers begging and, in some cases, demanding help, their fear and panic ramping up the chaos officers were trying to sort out. In addition to those wounded the shooter, there were a number of persons who’d been injured in accidents as they attempted to escape.
EMS and other emergency personnel would eventually be able to enter the building and treat and evacuate the survivors. More than 40 victims would be extracted from the school with roughly half of them being taken to Union Medical Center and the rest to Spartanburg Regional Medical Center.
Firefighters would also eventually enter the building to extinguish a fire set by the shooter as law enforcement gradually closed in on him. The shooter would finally barricade himself in a classroom with several hostages in a last ditch effort to try and escape justice.
Shortly after regular law enforcement personnel reached the scene and began attempting to clear the building, the city and the county Special Response Teams arrived to deal with the shooter and rescue his hostages. Regular law enforcement personnel fell back to allow the teams to do their work and shortly thereafter the teams reported that the shooter was dead and the hostages rescued. This allowed firefighters to enter the building and extinguish the fire, EMS personnel to extract the remaining wounded and get them medical treatment, and, the grimmest part of all, authorities begin the process of recovering and identifying the dead.
All this, of course, took place as part of the “Active Shooter Exercise,” a training exercise involving law enforcement other response agencies from four counties — Cherokee, Chester, Spartanburg, and Union — and volunteers from the Union County School District who played the part of the “victims” of the mass shooting.
“What we’ve done is we’ve taken every practical measure to make this to make this a life-threatening incident,” Major Robert Hines of the Union County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday morning. “We did this to prepare our people realistically for the future in case we have a situation like this at a school or major industry.”
Hines said that the scenario for the exercise involved a shooter entering the school’s cafeteria with a 12-gauge shotgun during lunchtime and opening fire, causing a panic as the teachers and students attempted to flee. He said the shooter would continue firing, randomly wounding and killing those in the cafeteria and then begin pursuing more victims throughout the school. The school’s SRO would attempt to engage the shooter only to be shot then radioing that he was down before succumbing to his wounds.
When law enforcement arrives, Hines said they would enter the cafeteria in two-man teams trying to rescue the victims and get information about the shooter from them. They would continue into the bottom hall where they would find victims begging and demanding help, making it even more challenging for the officers to get a handle on the situation and get needed information and radio it back to the Special Response Teams that were on their way.
In mass shooter situations like the one simulated Thursday, Hine said the Special Response Teams take the lead once they arrive on the scene, bringing their specialize training and tactics to bear on finding and stopping the shooter. Hines said that this is what happened Thursday where the Special Response Teams were able to locate and kill the shooter and eliminate the threat posed by him.
Hines said Thursday’s exercise was developed with information gleaned from the experiences of other communities that have held similar exercises. He reiterated that the goal of the exercise was to prepare law enforcement personnel as much as possible to deal with the real thing by making the exercise as realistic as possible.
Union County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Director Rob Fraim said Friday that Thursday’s exercise was a success that helped law enforcement and other responders see assess their performance in such a situation.
“It went really good,” Fraim said. “This being our first exercise with all the agencies, it went really smooth. We had only a few glitches and those can be worked out later. We got a lot of positive feedback from the people who participated.”
Those participants included:
• Union County Sheriff’s Office
• Union County EMS
• Union County 911
• Union Public Safety Department including both law enforcement and firefighting
• Philippi Fire Department
• Monarch Fire Department
• Kelly-Kelton Fire Department
• Southside Fire Department
• Jonesville Fire Department
• Bonham Fire Department
• Spartanburg County EMS
• Spartanburg Regional Medical Center
• Union Medical Center
• Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office
• Cherokee County Emergency Management
• Jonesville Police Department
• Chester County Emergency Management
• The Union and Union County SRTs (Special Response Teams)
• Regional One
• Volunteers from the Union County School District who played the “victims” of the mass shooter.
Fraim said that the law enforcement and other agencies that participated in the exercise will work together on an “after action” report. He said this would be a continuation and summation of a process that began with a debriefing of the personnel involved that was held immediately after the conclusion of the exercise. The report, which he said could be completed by the end of this month, would detail what needs to be corrected about the agencies’ performance during Thursday’s exercise, corrections that can improve their performance on the next such exercise or, if necessary, in a real mass shooting.
While there is room for improvement, Fraim said he was pleased with the results of Thursday’s exercise, and thanked all those who participated.
“A lot of people got a lot of good training out of this,” Fraim said. “That’s why we have these exercises.”
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.