A 20-something man armed with a handgun and a combat rifle ran into Academic Hall on the campus of Mount Aloysius College on Thursday as reporters and dozens of others watched.
The staged attack was part of a well-orchestrated exercise culminating a day and a half of classroom training on best practices to handle a terrorist or similar attack at a college campus or public school.
Dubbed an “active shooter/mass casualty training and drill,” the exercise involved dozens of emergency medical reponders, police departments, fire companies, Memorial Medical Center, Cambria County Emergency Management Agency, the coroner’s office, the U.S. Marshals Service and the federal prison at Loretto. St. Francis University and several school districts from the county also participated.
According to the script, a well-armed gunman walked into a college classroom filled with nearly 20 students and opened fire. The gunman was fatally wounded, but not before shooting and killing one student and injuring three others.
Jim Effinger, manager of the Cambria Alliance Emergency Medical Services, formerly Cresson Area Ambulance Service, said the training brought home the seriousness of what could be a real event.
“It’s frighteningly realistic,” Effinger said as he stood by one of his company’s EMS units. “You can’t put a dollar value on what experience this gives my people.”
Working through the script with professionals from a variety of agencies instills in emergency responders a sense of confidence that they can handle a similar situation in real life, Effinger said.
The drill was the first of its kind since the late 1990s, when a similar scenario was acted out at Greater Johnstown High School on a smaller scale.
Thursday’s exercise took three months of planning and went off without a hitch, said William Trexler, head of security for Mount Aloysius.
Steps were taken to ensure the drill resembled a real-life event as much as possible, Trexler said.
“They used their real weapons, although everything was empty. There was no ammunition inside the building,” he said. “There was not going to be a chance for a mistake.”
The actors who portrayed hostages and injured victims all are associated with the college – some as resident assistants and others as advanced students who monitor dormitories during the school year.
Hugely beneficial in the training, leaders said, was the college’s nursing division’s Simulation Center, a $500,000 computerized mannequin that can be administered all lifesaving procedures that would be needed during a real shooting incident.
Dr. Neil Yoder, a doctor at Memorial Medical Center, said he was especially pleased with the cross-section of support that the exercise generated.
“For me, it’s a step forward, having schools, businesses, local EMS willing to step up and be part of the practice having the risk of an attack shooter on our campus,” said Yoder, who was part of the triage set up outside Academic Hall. “This really helps the EMTs, fire departments and police departments who don’t deal with this type of thing on a regular basis.”
The college and its employees deserve high praise for being a major player in the event, said Ron Springer, director of Cambria County Emergency Services.
“We need to implement our written plans into plans of action so we know they are correct and ready to go,” Springer said. “This makes us all better.”
The drill went so well that it may be repeated elsewhere in the county, especially if local high schools have an interest, Springer said.