UC, police test response to shooting scenario
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- SWAT teams, police cars and an ambulance converged on the University of Charleston campus Wednesday to practice what they and university staff would do if a gunman showed up on campus and opened fire.
UC President Ed Welch said university staff got together with local emergency services providers, law enforcement and training drill planners to set up a scenario to test the school's ability to respond to an active shooter and inform students and parents about the emergency as it unfolded. Planners spent weeks working on the drill to make the scenario as realistic as possible.
"It's a sad reality that you have to do it," Welch said of the drill. "But it's a dangerous world. College campuses are very open places."
Students, faculty and some staff were told well in advance that an emergency scenario would be run on Wednesday, but didn't know when or what kind of emergency it would be. Some staff members -- and Welch himself -- knew only that the scenario would involve an active shooter.
But just as no military plan survives first contact with the enemy, planners quickly threw a monkey wrench into the drill by adding a second armed gunman, a fact Welch didn't find out about until after the first gunman walked right past his office in Riggleman Hall, effectively isolating Welch for the rest of the drill.
The scenario began at 9:35 a.m. with a report of a UC security officer down with multiple gunshot wounds. The shooter ran into Riggleman Hall on the eastern end of campus. The campus alert system crackled into life a few minutes later, with loudspeakers blaring campus-wide warnings. "There is a shooter in Riggleman Hall," students and staff were told. "Lock down and hide out until further instructions."
At the announcement, students hunkered down where they were, whether in their dorm rooms, in the cafeteria or in class. Classroom students locked their doors and piled their desks against the door to serve as a barricade, and were instructed to huddle in a far corner where they were theoretically out of sight of the shooter.
At the same time, the campus alert system sent out text and email messages to students. Some got the messages immediately, while others experienced a delay. Welch said planners have not figured out a pattern of who got messages first, or why.
Kanawha County sheriff's deputies and Charleston police arrived at 9:41. Four Kanawha County sheriff's deputies armed with assault rifles entered Riggleman Hall a few minutes later, tracked down the suspect and arrested him.
A second report came in about another gunman in the Geary Student Union a few minutes later. Officers didn't know at first if the report was genuine.
"You always have misinformation going out," said Scott Pauley, deputy director of the West Virginia Intelligence/Fusion Center, who helped plan Wednesday's drill.
"They don't know if it's one person, two people or 10 people."
Officers were ordered to set up a perimeter and wait for Charleston Police and Kanawha County SWAT teams, who arrived just before 11 a.m. The campus alert system continued to broadcast updates to students and faculty.
Officers spotted the second suspect a few minutes later, but lost him for several minutes before finally trapping him in a stairwell at 11:20 a.m. There was a report of yet a third gunman, but it turned out to be a false alarm. The drill was declared over at 11:40 a.m.
Jordan Johnson, a University of Charleston student who spent the duration of the drill locked down in a classroom, said the drill went fairly well and he feels faculty and police will be able to do a good job protecting students in the event of a real emergency.
Welch said planners learned some valuable lessons from the drill, including the need for faculty and staff to find alternate ways to communicate if they're physically cut off from one another. The ability of the gunman to move freely between Riggleman Hall and Geary Student Union through the skywalk was also a problem.
"Next time we'll try to find a way to lock down between buildings," he said.
Even with the glitches, Welch said, "It's helpful just getting ready for it."
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1215.