PROVO, Utah – Law enforcement officers need to be highly trained and ready in case an active shooter is ever at a school full of kids.
For 24 years, potential SWAT members have been training for active shooter scenarios as part of the annual Utah County Metro SWAT Hell Week. The weeklong training took place last week.
About 200 volunteers participated at Diamond Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork on April 25 to help make the scenario seem realistic. According to Utah County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Spencer Cannon, the scenarios are designed to be as close to the real thing as possible.
While it varies from year to year, there are usually two to three public safety officers who act as shooters in a school with kids and adults. These pretend shooters might also take hostages, who are volunteers. The SWAT trainees must react quickly, not knowing what the scenario will entail. The training takes place in the evening when regular school is not in session.
Real AR-15s with blanks are used. Some volunteers have fake injuries and wounds.
“They tell them to scream and look like they’re crying. They want it to be as realistic as they can,” Cannon said.
Current SWAT members act as supervision for the scenario.
While these realistic training scenarios are valuable for law enforcement officers who are training to be part of SWAT, the volunteers involved got a little bit of training themselves. This year, Mike Petersen, Pleasant Grove, took his two sons, Maddox, 17, and Conner, 14, as well as two of their friends, to participate.
“They staged everybody throughout the school, the library, hallways and classrooms,” Mike Petersen said.
That night, they went through two scenarios and during the second one, Mike Petersen and his sons and a couple of friends were walking in the hallways when they heard the simulated gunfire.
“As Maddox and I stopped in the hallway, here came the shooter from one direction and SWAT from another. I stopped and turned around and Conner and his friend were gone. I thought they ran. But, a teacher was there and she had her classroom door open. She reached out, grabbed them and shut and locked the door,” he said.
“Even knowing it was a scenario, it was pretty scary to know that I lost the two kids. I didn’t know they were in the classroom. It was probably 25-30 minutes before we found them,” Petersen said. “It added an element of reality to the scenario to me, even though it was fake. It showed how quickly you can go from calm to chaos; it was definitely surreal.”
Maddox said that the experience was interesting to be involved with and to watch.
“The whole time, I was talking with my dad about what was going on, about what the SWAT team was doing and analyzing the situation and what they were going to do with the outcome,” he said. “I wasn’t really stressed about it because I knew it was a simulation.”
Maddox said that he felt like he saw how the SWAT team would operate if he were ever in a real situation with an active shooter.
“I feel like I could help everybody stay calm,” he said.
“It was stressful when I got pulled into the classroom by a person that I didn’t know,” Conner said. But, like Maddox, he now feels more prepared. “I think it helps kids know what to do,” Conner said.
“As a parent, I thought it was really valuable,” Mike Petersen said. “Driving home, all four teenagers had very different insights.”
Cannon said that the SWAT trainees take the exercise extremely seriously.
“It’s interesting to watch from year to year. Some years, they miss things. Other years, they pick up on things that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of,” he said.
This year, one SWAT trainee was in the library while some others were negotiating with the hostage taker, who was in a side room.
“He moved everyone from one side of the room to the other side of the room so they wouldn’t be in direct line of fire,” Cannon said. “That was very, very smart to be thinking, ‘How can I protect the rest of these innocent people here?’ He was really thinking on his feet. That’s what we’re trying to get them to do. Save lives and reducing likelihood of taking someone else’s life.”