By Konstantine Fekos
WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP —
Organizers and participants of the active shooter drill at Neason Hill Elementary School reached a common consensus after their training exercise on Wednesday morning — the possibility is frightening, but the experience is necessary.
School officials and emergency responders worked to evacuate student actors from the grounds while teams of law enforcement officers took turns neutralizing the threat of two mock gunmen making their way through the halls.
Firefighters secured roadblocks on Williamson Road between Lamont Drive and Barton Road from morning to mid-afternoon.
“We hope it will never happen, but we have to know it’s a possibility,” said Michelle McGee, state trooper and community services officer, who played a major role in the drill’s organization along with Allen Clark, director of Emergency Management for the Crawford County Office of Emergency Services.
“I think it was a definite eye-opener,” McGee said. “I think it shows what challenges we might face: where we should concentrate our resources, the emotions of the people involved.”
McGee estimated more than 200 people played a part in the exercise.
“We appreciate all the response and participation,” she said. “It truly speaks to the importance of today’s activities.”
Taking the roles of the shooters, retired state police officers Doug McGee and Jeff McCall fired blanks and yelled threatening remarks to heighten the sense of realism.
“I think it’s an important part of preparedness for any law enforcement officer,” McCall said. “At least if you make a mistake here, it isn’t life-threatening.”
McCall and Doug McGee have participated in many similar training exercises after their active duty and were impressed with how quickly participating officers neutralized the threat.
“These groups really were exceptional,” McCall said, especially given the building layout and acoustics. “They got to the active shooters in a hurry and that’s what needs to happen.”
“It’s not as life-like as the real thing, but it’s better than going in cold,” Doug McGee said.
The mock gunmen agreed these types of training exercises give officers the unique opportunity to learn from each other and work with different area departments, something which will most likely occur in a real shooter scenario.
“There are so many scenarios you can’t really prepare for them all, but it’s a good start,” said Mike Ditzenberger, Meadville Area Senior High School teacher.
Ditzenberger joined faculty and staff from several school districts, including Crawford Central and PENNCREST, who escorted students to the National Fuel gas facility on Williamson Road.
Once the students reached the facility safely, faculty members made sure everyone was accounted for before loading Office of Emergency Service and Crawford Area Transit Authority buses to the next reunification site.
“I thought (the drill) was successful,” Ditzenberger said. “It brings awareness to the community. I’d like to see it continue with different buildings and scenarios.”
“In a stressful situation, the officers did a nice job taking out the threat to make the students safe,” said Dave Dickson, supervisor of buildings, grounds and transportation for Crawford Central.
Dickson coordinated many of the day’s efforts and spoke to the overall success of the exercise and his appreciation for the months of effort and planning required to organize it.
“Clark Allen and Trooper (Michelle) McGee did an excellent job putting this together,” he said.
After the drill finished and the students returned home, county agencies and local participants met in the cafeteria to share feedback and evaluate the scenario.
Many critiques focused on the admittedly unrealistic portions of the drill, such as the relative lack of high emotions of parents and students as well as additional emergency and law enforcement officials, all of which would undoubtedly be present during a real shooting.
“It’s important for every school to meet with emergency agencies and work toward prevention,” Clark said. “All facilities and agencies need to have plans. After that, we do tabletop exercises and then functional exercises, which we try and make as realistic and safe as possible.”
Agencies that participated in the shooter drill included Crawford County Office of Emergency Services, Sheriff’s Office, Transportation Authority, East Mead EMC, Meadville police, Lord Corp., Crawford County Department of Human Services, Red Cross, Juvenile Probation, Adult Probation/Parole, CATA Bus Service, Crawford Central School District, PENNCREST School District, Meadville Ambulance, West Mead Township, National Fuel, West Mead No. 1 Fire Department, West Mead police, Linesville police, Vernon Township police and state police.
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.