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News | Nov. 10, 2017

Exercise helps first responders at DLA HQC, Fort Belvoir hone response to potential shooters

By John Bell

Only weeks after mass shootings at a concert in Las Vegas and at a small-town church in South Texas, employees of the Defense Logistics Agency should know DLA and other local first responders are regularly honing their skills in responding to active shooters, as they in did in a Nov. 7 exercise at the McNamara Headquarters Complex and at the agency’s facility in nearby Lorton.

The lifelike scenario involved two simulated shooters — one at each facility. In each instance, first responders neutralized the threat, secured the area and made sure employees sheltered in place as directed.

Such exercises, held annually at the HQC, help first responders hone their response time, ensure they communicate effectively and address any overlooked vulnerabilities. The simulations also help employees rehearse what they will do in a real event.

Just before the exercise began, James Johnston, the DLA antiterrorism officer for the HQC, reviewed the cast of volunteer “victims” assembled near the main entrance.

“Earn your Academy Award,” he urged the volunteer actors. “Make it believable for the responders. This is real-world to them.”

At 8:56 a.m., a white van careened around the road to the entrance of the HQC building. A “shooter” in a ski mask emerged with a simulated rifle and left a bag next to the rear tire. He was still unnoticed by the group of “victims” assembled near the entrance.

Next the “shooter,” played by Air Force Master Sgt. Joe Braswell of the Air Force Petroleum Office,  yelled menacingly as he aimed his simulated rifle at the volunteer “victims.” Several loud pops (from a cap gun) filled the air as he fired, and the volunteers in their orange vests fell to the ground.

Less than one minute later, the “shooter” was dead — shot at close range shot by DLA Police Sgt. Leon Gregory, using a stand-in for his service weapon. (All police officers used non-firing simulated weapons for the exercise.)

But it was far from over. “You got a bag with the van!” yelled DLA Police Officer Gregory Wilson. Then DLA Police Sgt. Michael Gmaz investigated the backpack and concluded it contained a possible explosive. The incident command contacted the Army’s 55th Explosive Ordnance Division, who sent a robot and then an EOD technician to defuse the homemade device.

At 9:02, the first engine and ambulance from the Fort Belvoir Fire Department arrived at the HQC. Around the same time, the Fort Belvoir Police Department officers also arrived to provide mutual support.

But the first responders’ work was not done. They next tended to the victims, some dead and some wounded, lying on the concrete with realistic “wounds.” To add to the lifelike experience, some were screaming or complaining.

Braswell has played an active shooter twice before, he said. But he has no other acting credits to his name. “It’s just good to be part of this, to help raise awareness,” he said as he lay on the cold concrete in handcuffs, with a simulated bullet wound to the head.

Firefighters also play a critical role along with their law-enforcement brethren. Capt. Scott Teter led the Fort Belvoir Fire Department’s response to the HQC exercise. “We’re all trained in emergency medical services,” he said. “Some of us have advanced training as paramedics.”

In addition, Teter said, the firefighters may be needed to help respond to an explosive or incendiary device. For this reason and to make sure they’re not mistaken for police officers, they wear their full set of equipment — including coats and helmets — to every response. That includes the summer when this equipment can be uncomfortable, Teter acknowledged. It gets warm,” he said.

The response also includes clergy, such as Army Maj. Demetrius Walton, the DLA deputy command chaplain. He attended to victims, offering pastoral counseling, calming their fears and offering prayers.

Planning an exercise like this begins six months in advance, Johnston noted. Making sure all potential responding agencies are either participating or aware an exercise will take place requires coordinating with the Fort Belvoir Fire Department; Fort Belvoir’s Army military police; the Fairfax County Police Department; Virginia State Police; the Army 55th EOD; and the Belvoir Community Hospital.

Most employees of DLA and the other HQC tenant organizations know that the general guidance in an active shooter event to “run, hide, fight.” However, in this exercise, the public announcement instructed all personnel to shelter in place rather than attempt to escape the fenced complex. (In this exercise, “victims” were told not to fight the assailant.)

In an after-action review that day, the DLA Police officer who took down the shooter offered his thoughts to those who played the victims. “Our primary job is not to help you,” Gregory noted. “It’s to deal with the threat and secure the area.”

As much as everyone hopes they will never be part of a real situation like this, it’s important to plan for it, he said. “No matter where you go, have a plan,” he urged the group. “Make sure everyone in your family knows. ‘This is what we do. This is where we meet if we’re separated.’”

Having and sharing a plan before an incident happens is a must, Gregory said. “ It may seem tedious, but it will save your life.”