News Clip: 4 ‘Dead,’ But Not a Bad Day

Law enforcement agencies converge on College of St. Elizabeth for simulated crisis.

By Louis C. Hochman

Originally published on Morristown Patch · August 16, 2011

Alicia Ruddy had been shot square in the chest a few hours earlier. So, all things considered, she was in pretty good spirits.

Scenes from a mock campus shooting at the College of St. Elizabeth. Credit: Karen Fucito

“They said it happened really fast,” said Ruddy, among the first “victims” in a simulated shooting on the College of St. Elizabeth campus Tuesday morning. “But when I was waiting for the response, it felt like it took forever.”

Ruddy’s injury—her character in the massive multi-agency drill survived, by the way—was among the first signs of the seriousness of the incident, which brought about 150 first-responders from throughout Morris County and from the FBI to the Convent Station campus.

What started with a check-in by Florham Park police for a report of a suspicious man with a backpack inside the school’s Henderson Hall spiraled into a full-scale crisis. Before long, authorities were going after six shooters in three buildings—some with hostages—and working to defuse improvised bombs in each.

And almost no one deployed to the scene knew what would happen next. The only exception was Capt. Robert M. Treiber, of the Florham Park Police Department, who headed tactical operations during the drill. But none of the other 120-plus law enforcement officers (see the full list of responding agencies in our own simulated report on the emergency) knew what to expect from the exercise. Nor did dozens of EMS volunteers, Red Cross workers or most involved college personnel.

“I think it really tested us to the extreme,” said Capt. Jeffrey S. Paul, of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, who had headed up incident command during the operation.

Representatives of the various agencies relayed messages in person and electronically through a mobile command post—a large vehicle equipped with plenty of computer, audiovisual and communications equipment—and responded to threats in three campus buildings in tandem.

In the end, four “victims” were “dead,” as was the suspicious male first reported in Henderson. He’d taken his own life with a shot to the head after officers entered the building; they found in his backpack an improvised explosive that prompted them to begin sweeping other buildings.

Can’t Simulate Everything

Not everything played out quite the way it would have in a real emergency. EMS workers and the Red Cross would have never been deployed on site, their representatives and Paul both said; instead they would have been at a staging area somewhere outside but close to the campus. There wouldn’t have been a reporter in the mobile command post. Security would have been blocking locked-down areas of the campus.

And nerves would have been a bit more on edge.

“I survived, but I would have been in shock,” Ruddy, the girl who’d been shot in the chest, said. An incoming senior at the college and a community adviser (the college’s equivalent of a residence adviser), she was among about 70 role-players there for law enforcement to save, or to stop. A “bullet hole” in her shirt hinted at the attack she’d endured; other “victims” had cuts and scrapes simulated with theater makeup, ready for assessment by the EMS.

Overall, Ruddy said, she was impressed by the professionalism and efficiency of the operation, even if her character—like 21 others who’d been injured—suffered.

But several of those involved said they were aware that as useful as a drill is for preparedness, the anxiety that comes with a real crisis is hard to simulate.

“If this were real, I don’t think I could sit in the [college’s] command center,” Sister Francis Raftery, the college’s president, told those gathered for a post-drill lunch.

Nanette Spedden, director for volunteer and service learning at the college and one of the simulation’s “victims,” said she expected everything to be a lot louder—more like the flash and bang of a TV police force storming suspects. She was surprised by the subtlety.

“They were pretty much tiptoeing,” she said of the law enforcement agencies.

And she, too, said participants were calmer than they would be in real life.

“So, it was lower-key in that sense,” she said.

But Sharon McNulty, the school’s director of counseling services, who worked alongside the Red Cross to treat those with emotional traumas, said even a calmer-than-real-life drill is an excellent way to, well, stay calm if a real-life crisis occurs.

Paul said aspects of the situation keep the adrenaline flowing. There’s a lot of hectic, fast-paced communication, and guns firing with blanks still get the heart pumping.

Beth Pincus, representing the Colonial Crossroads chapter of the Red Cross, said the tension of a thorough simulation—and she said Tuesday’s was a “phenomenal, incredibly well-done” recreation of a real crisis—can even raise anxieties to the point that those on scene need real emotional support.

In the Heat of the Situation

Overall, officials said, the event demonstrated effective coordination among the agencies involved. Paul said over the next few days, various agencies would discuss any issues from the simulation among themselves, looking for opportunities to improve communication, coordination and response.

The simulation offered a few surprises—but then again, it was bound to, officials said.

One student “victim” locked herself inside a classroom, and communicated by text to a friend, who relayed messages to the tactical command center.

“Good,” Paul said from inside incident command. “That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Maya Bley, the school’s assistant director of multicultural affairs, was playing the role of a victim. Her character left a residence hall dazed, a “zombie” in need of emotional support services. But because she was non-responsive, law enforcement mistook her for a potential perpetrator, and handcuffed her.

“They did what they had to do,” she said. Eventually, the Red Cross connected with her, and she was let go once she was able to answer questions and explain herself.

Overall, EMS and Red Cross workers saw and treated dozens of people. While they didn’t actually go through the motions of  transportation to the three hospitals hypothetically used to treat victims, they did a brief transport on campus as a stand-in for that trip.

Lessons Learned

Past, smaller-scale drills have helped the college to prepare its own multifaceted emergency plans, said Katherine Buck, dean of students. It’s the lessons learned in those exercises that are responsible for a communication system capable of reaching students and faculty immediately by text, email and phone.

Officials spoke among themselves at a debriefing immediately following the simulation, but expect their analysis to continue for some time.

“The hope is we can always improve,” Buck said.

Paul said in his eyes, things worked the way they should—and the analysis work ahead is about improvement, not repair.

“[If this were real], I would have been impressed with the state of readiness of the college,” Paul said. “I think that’s a credit to the faculty, certainly the leadership of the college, and the student body.”

He specifically cited its ability to quickly access pertinent information on campus layout, and on student population expected on campus. If the school’s chief of security, Don Green, wasn’t able to provide that so immediately, it could have wasted precious minutes, he said.

Treiber, the Florham Park police captain, said that if and when a similar exercise takes place, he’d like to further separate the drill planning from the drill response. Since he, unlike virtually everyone else there, had been involved in both sides, he needed to put aside information he knew when coordinating tactical response.

But he said even though every crisis plays out differently, and it’s impossible to simulate everything, he’s satisfied with the information collected about the campus, the school’s operations and the high-tech equipment that goes virtually untested in more mundane situations.

“God forbid something happened here, these guys have been through the buildings,” Treiber said.

Pincus, of the Red Cross, had difficulty when asked if there’s anything the drill taught her should be done differently.

“It’s not that it was perfect,” she said. “But it worked.”