Preparing for the worst

Bellevue officers again hold active shooter drill.

It’s a scenario many have unfortunately heard before.

A shooter opens fire in a school, mall, festival or church. There are victims. Sometimes many. And the community mourns their loss.

It’s a cycle that has become all too familiar. And it’s in these situations that every second counts

Just recently a weekend of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio combined left at least 31 dead.

The Bellevue Police Department is working to be better prepared — just in case it happens here.

As the month of July was nearing its end, about 175 Bellevue officers got together for an active shooter training at Bellwood Elementary School. They practice and reevaluate their response every other year.

The school — primed for demolition before becoming the new site for Puesta Del Sol Elementary — meant police were free to let compressed paint bullets fly from their modified guns. And a meeting beforehand refreshed officers on active shooter protocol.

Bellevue, being in mutual aid agreements with surrounding cities, operates under the umbrella of the National Incident Management System, along with other Eastside cities.

“We all speak the same language and when orders are given, they’re in the same language so we can support each other,” said Bellevue Police Department spokeswoman Meeghan Black.

Bellevue officers were told that communication is key. And unlike in other circumstances where police safety is the top priority, this shifts when there’s an active shooter on the loose.

“In an active shooter situation — innocent people become priority,” said Marcia Harnden, Bellevue west sector captain.

And the department looks to other active shooter responses, and strives to make improvements where needed. In 1999, when the Columbine High School shooting happened, the response focused on police containing the shooters to the school and waiting for SWAT to arrive.

It allowed the shooters to walk through the school uninterrupted and medical attention to victims was delayed. One of the victims, a teacher, bled to death on scene hours after being shot. The SWAT team was working to clear the entire school.

The Bellevue officers were geared up and a response call was put in over a training channel. Command staff worked to communicate what was happening to officers over the radio, as law enforcement lined up, forming into groups and using hand signals to indicate that the team was ready to enter the school building.

As officers moved through the building, the school areas were given signifiers. Each was either a hot, warm or cold zone — depending on the level of threat.

The Hot Zone was described as an area where the active shooter was. While a Warm Zone was a place where police had entered and determined to be free of the shooter — a location where law enforcement had either cleared or isolated the threat. A Cold Zone is a place with little or no threat.

The fire department can move in to treat victims after a Warm Zone is established, ensuring that victims get treatment in a timely matter, prior to the whole building being secured and the threat eliminated completely.

“On a school this size, it can take hours for the building to be secure,” Harnden said.

Mannequin victims and others created out of wood sticks, clothing and printed out faces, laid in the hallways. Even in these kinds of drills, where the screams and blood are minimal, without sprinklers drenching law enforcement or fire alarms sounding, the adrenaline is still pumping.

“The whole intent is to make it as real world as possible,” Harnden said.

It was 10 minutes before the scenario was over. The actor assailant’s protective coat was covered with too many colored bullets to count.

Afterward, the officers lined up near a pole outside. They discussed what could be improved. And then they prepared to run through another drill, this time with an added layer of difficulty.

The next time an active shooter drill happens, it may be held in a different kind of structure, giving officers a chance to practice their response with different challenges to work around.

“We’re constantly thinking what if,” Harnden said. “What if it happens at a school? What if at a church? What if at Bellevue Square?”

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