By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
It was a scene Monday morning inside a Laurel County school that nobody wants to see or hear. But, it was only a training exercise.
Except for a few vehicles in the front parking lot of Sublimity Elementary School, all was quiet on the outside.
But there were people inside the school, and they were armed with weapons. In this case, members of the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Response Unit, or SRU, were conducting a mock exercise for training purposes.
It gave SRU members and sheriff’s deputies valuable skills and knowledge on how to deal with the possibility of violent intruders coming into a school, and how to react if it was an actual situation.
There were indeed planned situations, such as a case of a hostage being held in a classroom by a gunman. There were weapons used in the exercises, but the weapons were simulated firearms. And when the officers shot at the gunman, the bullets were airsoft plastic pellets — about the size of a BB.
Most of all, the exercises showed how split-second timing, clear-thinking and proper training techniques helps law enforcement have the upper hand in such a crisis.
“There are three techniques we use to buy us an advantage. Surprise, speed and violence of action. When I say ‘violence of action,’ that could be a quick movement by our team or a deputy to throw off the person causing the problem. When I’m going from a ‘known’ area into an ‘unknown’ area, the person I’m going after has an advantage. He’s in a ‘known’ area and I’m going into his ‘known’ area. That ‘violence of action’ mitigates the advantages he has,” said the SRU commander, Lt. Rodney Van Zant.
He added there are six people in the Special Response Unit, and all of them are sworn officers in the sheriff’s department. Some of them were there at the school, along with a few deputies scheduled for the training. Van Zant pointed out that getting the deputies in the training with the SRU helps everyone sharpen their skills.
“We’re evolving into our training and we’re trying to get all our deputies involved in continued tactical training by having two or three road-working deputies learn with the special response unit. It makes for a quicker learning curve for the deputies, and this training can apply to a school, a workforce or a place of worship,” he noted.
In many parts of the nation lately, law enforcement’s been especially busy preparing for the unthinkable. That’s in light of what happened last month at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
While trainees took a break, Van Zant said the training experience has been extremely valuable to the sheriff’s department. The SRU training has been going on once a month for the past seven to eight months at Laurel County Schools. Since schools in the Laurel County district were already closed Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday’s exercise was the first at Sublimity Elementary.
And during the session, Van Zant reminded those in the line of fire to remember the situation they could possibly be in, when seconds count.
“I want you to think as realistically as you can, and put yourself in the shoes of responding to the scene when there’s an active shooter, a multiple shooter or a hostage situation,” said Van Zant. “There’s a million questions that have to be questioned, and we try to put our deputies into those ‘What if?’ questions as much as possible. Timing is everything. And if we can save 10 seconds off our response time, it’ll save lives.”
That was the case in an exercise called “force-on-force,” where simulated firearms are used and the airsoft rubber pellets are used. With a hostage being held by a lone gunman inside a classroom, trainees responded to the situation quickly.
“It adds a new level of training when there’s someone in the room. It does add a level of fear, because it brings up the danger of having someone shooting at you, or having someone inside who’s in danger of being harmed,” said Dep. Gilbert Acciardo, the public affairs officer for the Laurel Sheriff’s Department.
Within seconds, the air was shattered by the snapping sounds of the airsoft pellets zooming by. Those who were shot said the pellets “stung” them when they were hit. Meanwhile, cries of “Shots fired!” and “Suspect down!” filled the hallway outside the classroom.
When the simulated situation was under control, one of those involved got up from the floor.
“I got shot twice here, but I’ve been shot several times this morning,” said Dr. Brian Jones, an assistant instructor from Frankfort who came down to London to help out with the training.
But Acciardo noted the stings Jones and others took from being shot are a big part of the learning process.
“The good thing is about this live exercise is you can train all day. But to have someone shot makes it invaluable to have the training realistic. Honestly, if you got shot by one of these airsoft pellets, you’ll do better in training the next time.”
Training days like the one Monday morning at Sublimity school will continue. Acciardo said it’s all part of a plan to make each officer in the sheriff’s department aware of what to do, how to react and how to keep a potential situation at school from becoming one with tragic results.
“In the next six weeks, every deputy has to walk through every school in Laurel County. It does two things for them and the department,” said Acciardo. “One, it gets every officer familiar with each school’s layout, and two, it puts a uniformed, armed officer in that school unannounced. After that period, each officer will make periodic checks at the school. This is why we’re having the training exercise today. Deputies need to know how to clear a room and how to clear a building in the event of a school situation. That’s because there may be a unit nearby to provide help and response, should a situation really occur.”