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Ohio first responders find strengths, weaknesses in active shooter drill

Officials in Ashtabula County held a drill at Conneaut High School and learned what they can improve upon


Conneaut Area City Schools/Facebook

Brian Haytcher
Star Beacon

CONNEAUT, Ohio — First responders from across Ashtabula County were in Conneaut on Friday morning as they participated in an active shooter drill at Conneaut High School.

The drill began shortly before 11 a.m., and the first Conneaut Police officer arrived less than five minutes after the first shots were fired.

The first Conneaut Fire Department vehicles arrived soon after.

Police officers from a number of county departments, along with troopers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and ambulances from around the county, also responded to the scene over the next hour.

Before the drill, law enforcement were briefed on the parameters of the drill by Bob McBride, a retired FBI SWAT team member.

Officers were instructed to check their weapons to make sure no live ammunition was in them, then told to pair up and check each others’ weapons before a third check was conducted by the organizers of the drill.

Weapons brought onto the school grounds by law enforcement also had zip ties through the receivers or magazine wells to ensure they could not be loaded.

Some participants volunteered to act as victims, either wounded or dead.

Partway through the exercise, a person attempted to get into the school to check on the status of her child as part of the drill, and she was led away by district staff.

Staff, students and actors were evacuated from the school grounds to a safe location, and those portraying shooting victims were transported to UH Conneaut via ambulance.

After the drill, Conneaut Police Detective Taylor Cleveland, one of the organizers of the drill, thanked both first responders and district staff.

“I appreciate that this took a physical toll on a lot of you, I appreciate that this took an emotional toll on a lot of you, and I appreciate the humility and the lack of ego that a lot of professionals showed,” he said.

Cleveland said there is a two-fold takeaway people should have.

“No. 1, that there’s always something that we can do better. ... No. 2, that we’re not as bad as we think we are, we’re capable of more than we think that we are capable of,” he said.

School Resource Officer Tim Rose encouraged everyone who participated in the drill to share their experiences with others.

He praised first responders who participated.

“We had some mistakes, we worked through everything we needed to and the situation was solved,” he said. “We expected a communications breakdown and we got one.”

There was a breakdown in communications between the fire department, the police department, the various other responding agencies and the schools, Rose said.

He described the different reports of how many attackers there were in the building.

“I heard guy and girl team, I heard five shooters, I heard somebody call in shots fired when it was dead silent,” Rose said. “These poor people [police officers] were running around, I know you couldn’t see them, they were running through your school trying to figure out all the information, and I thank you greatly, that you gave them. Because that’s realistic.”

Conneaut Area City Schools Superintendent Lori Riley also thanked everyone who participated.

“For our staff, I know there was a lot of apprehension today,” she said. “I didn’t sleep last night, I was worried about all of you, but I hope that this was helpful for you.”

She said the district and organizers started debriefing immediately.

“I applaud those of you that stretched your comfort zone,” Riley said.

The students who participated in the drill were children of district staff.

Riley thanked those students for participating.

“This is a hard exercise for all of us to go through, so we appreciate you and your parents doing this together,” she said.

In an interview after the drill, Riley said between when the district did a tabletop drill several months ago to now, a lot of improvements have been put in place.

“We’ll need to work on that communication piece from the agencies,” she said. “We wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t done this today.”

She said her mind knew it was a drill, but in her gut, it felt very realistic.

“Walking back through and seeing the blood on the floor, it makes it very realistic,” Riley said. “It’s very unnerving.”

Staff could choose one of four different levels of involvement in the drill, depending on how comfortable they were with participating.

Riley said it was hard for her not to be inside the building.

“And it’s hard for me not to be everywhere,” she said. “I felt at one point like a caged animal.”

District staff went to UH Conneaut as soon as the first of the simulated victims were transported there, Riley said.

“So I was getting communication from the hospital as to as much as they knew,” she said. “But there were other pieces of communication I wasn’t getting. Like, I didn’t know what was happening inside the building. So we need to build that piece of communication up.”

Cleveland said the drill had a number of victims on the higher end of average, and there were enough ambulances to handle it.

“Our fire departments did a good job,” he said.

UH Conneaut also had everyone triaged and ready for transport in a relatively short period of time, Cleveland said.

“I was really happy that their surge capacity, they don’t get to test that very often, I was really happy with the way that unfolded,” he said.

He praised district staff in the building.

“The actions of the people that were in the building, as far as locking their doors, treating some people that were in the room, calling 911 and giving descriptions, and how they acted in crisis was amazing, clearly they’ve been training for it,” Cleveland said.

“The administration’s reunification plan, and accounting for people after the fact, 135, 140 people in this building, they had everybody except for the deceased accounted for by the end of this drill.”

Cleveland said there were communications issues on the law enforcement side that prevented them from being as proficient as they need to be.

“We were unable to talk to the people we need to talk to, and that didn’t surprise us, we knew that going in,” he said.

The Conneaut Police Department is in the process of upgrading their radios to the MARCS system.

“The fire department’s already on MARCS, their communication ... went well, so that’s encouraging for us, once we go to MARCS, we expect the same level of communication,” Cleveland said. “So we knew that was going to be a problem. It snowballed into about a thousand other problems, that second-, third-order events that I didn’t count on.”

He said he has been studying the recent Department of Justice report regarding the Uvalde, Texas school shooting for the last several nights, and he tried to include the friction points from that incident in Friday’s training.

“I’m going to be quite honest, some of the things that failed in Uvalde failed here too,” Cleveland said. “So that tells us what we, as a profession, need to start working on communication, incident command, interoperability with other agencies, simplifying our policies, working with people like the [ Emergency Management Agency ] to get standardized policies throughout the county.”

There are a number of police officers in the county who study tactics and responses to crises, he said.

“Those are the people that drive our response policies, and how we do this stuff,” Cleveland said. “So we’re lucky that we have probably six, 10 people that get really granular into how to improve police departments in Ashtabula County .”

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