Pa. Air Guardsmen, local responders train for active-shooter response

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond
  • 111th Attack Wing Public Affairs
It was Friday the 13th of May and an ominous figure was lumbering forward through an office building here. The sound of erratic gunshots echoed down the hallways.

"Exercise, exercise, exercise!" yelled an unspecified voice trailing the aggressor. The clarification didn't lower the volume of the mock gunfire.

The red-vested pretend assailant kept advancing, firing blank rounds within the confines of the office structure. Through the din, the trailing voice reassuringly repeated, "Exercise, exercise, exercise!"

Guardsmen of the 111th Attack Wing and first responders from Horsham Township, Pennsylvania, were participating in a major accident response exercise involving an active shooter and mass causalities.

But unlike some military installations, when the 111th ATKW conducts a MARE, the exercise isn't isolated to base personnel. In fact, local agencies such as Pennsylvania's Montgomery County SWAT team, Horsham Police and Fire Departments play as important a role as the military units.

"We all live and work in Horsham Township and have a duty to serve our community to the best of our abilities," said Horsham Township Police Department Lt.  K. John Potts. "Exercises like the one that took place on Friday can help identify problems before an incident occurs, as well as foster an opportunity for members of the police department and the [Air National Guard] to build working relationships with one another."

A MARE is a military training requirement that consists of simulated emergency events. The responses to those events are evaluated by wing inspection team members based on the Air Force's four major graded areas. Those responses are then generated into a report by inspectors who are present to witness the entire exercise. That report is then uploaded into a tracking system and reviewed by the installation commander, who can then initiate any necessary remediation.

For nearly four years, the wing has included nonmilitary first responders, and the results have been encouraging.

"I'd say that from when we first brought the local authorities about four years ago, we've improved a good 80 to 85 percent," said Chief Master Sgt. Jim Tobolski, 111th ATKW project manager. "If I have to pick out one area that we still need to work on, it is that there are so many cops that could respond, and not all of them have been here to do it. Base familiarity is the key, and the goal is seamless reaction -- and we're getting pretty close."

Potts said the joint exercises on the base offer a test for responding Horsham police officers to locate specific streets and buildings on the base. "When we are called to assist the [111th ATKW] with an actual event, we want our officers familiar enough with the layout of the base that they can locate the address and building quickly," he said.

Sometimes, training can be reduced to the rote minutia of its elements -- exercises beget inspections beget reports beget lessons learned. But an active-shooter MARE is something beyond that. It's simply about saving lives.

"This training can mean the difference between life and death," said Master Sgt. Geoffrey Gay, the notional active shooter and a 201st RED HORSE Det.1 member. "When it's over and you're able to recall what actually happened during the exercise, you can go back to these people and say 'Here's where you messed up.' or 'Here's what you did right.'"

It's good to know what works, Potts said, but it's more important to know what doesn't work. "That," he said, "can mean the difference between someone being injured or killed."

Creating realistic MARE scenarios that help keep people alive is largely about increasing everyone's situational awareness, Gay said. "The climate of danger and violence is different than it was 20 years ago," he added. "Take your beak outta your phone once in a while and look around."