Chaos theory: ‘Active shooter’ training prepares law enforcement for worst-case scenarios |

Chaos theory: ‘Active shooter’ training prepares law enforcement for worst-case scenarios

Colin Nelson, left, of the Grass Valley Police Department participates in active shooter training at the Old Meeks lumber site in Grass Valley Thursday.
Laura Mahaffy/ | The Union

It’s been 15 years since the Columbine High School massacre shocked the nation. Since then, school shootings have occurred with mind-numbing regularity, with the latest — in Roseburg, Ore. — striking particularly close to home, in a small rural community much like Nevada County and less than eight hours away.

It’s purely coincidental that a long-planned multi-agency “active shooter” training took place in Grass Valley Tuesday and Thursday, less than a week after a gunman killed nine people in a classroom at Umpqua Community College.

But that tragedy “brings to light how important this kind of training is,” said Lt. Steve Johnson of the Grass Valley Police Department, which hosted the two-day training exercise. “Roseburg is a similar-sized town, with a similar (college) campus. It can happen anywhere, anytime … We can’t plan for every scenario — but the more training we can do, the more prepared we’ll be.”

The training session, held at the vacant Meeks Lumber site on Nevada City Highway, included participants from the Nevada City Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, Nevada County Probation, Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, local fire agencies and emergency medical services staff.

In the morning, trainees learned how to move tactically and safely around structures, then trained in scenarios, practicing how to clear areas, make room entries, and safely subdue suspects, Johnson said. The Meeks complex was useful, he added, because it contains large open areas, which were used to simulate gyms or cafeterias, as well as office spaces to simulate classrooms.

“We’re very appreciative the owners let us use this,” Johnson said.

The participants agreed the ability to pull together a multi-agency training was crucial in a small county where many of the agencies likely would all be responding to large incidents.

“We all want to be on the same page, to work together efficiently,” Johnson said.

Both Johnson and trainer Ben Tisa, of the California Association of Tactical Trainers, agreed that law enforcement’s response to shootings has changed dramatically since Columbine.

“What the last decade has shown us is that these incidents are over quickly,” Johnson said. “Patrol ends up dealing with these situations — patrol is the tip of the spear.”

Before Columbine, the tactic would be to secure the perimeter and then wait for your SWAT team to come in — or at least for backup.

“Now we’re trained not to wait,” Johnson said. “You go in and do whatever you can to neutralize the threat.”

The “active shooter” concept was generated by the events of Columbine, Tisa said, with law enforcement learning that often the attacks are planned, with more than one shooter involved, wearing body armor, using explosives and planning ambushes.

“It’s an extremely dangerous situation,” Tisa said. “Marshaling multiple agencies make a big difference, especially with big (sites).”

In the afternoon, Tisa and fellow trainer Michael Mello ran teams through a variety of scenarios involving multiple suspects, and coordinating with emergency medical teams from county fire agencies. As each group ran a scenario, their performance was dissected and needed improvements were noted.

Communication is key, Mello told them, adding, “There needs to be dialogue — and it needs to be quick.”

The repeated drilling is invaluable, said Grass Valley Police Officer John Herrera, who noted that Nevada County already has experienced one mass shooting — the Scott Thorpe massacre in January 2001.

“When there’s chaos going on, you get very myopic,” he said. “Those tiny mechanics are going to save your life. Speaking from experience — that training will save your life.”

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email or call 530-477-4229.

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