Scores of paramedics and police met Thursday at a Muslim college in North Berkeley to practice how they might respond if gunmen one day target the campus.
“Active-shooter” drills have become increasingly common in recent years as first responders have tried to prepare better for school shootings and other mass casualty events. The location of Thursday’s drill, Zaytuna College, was particularly relevant because the school has faced terror-related threats in the recent past. Its president and co-founder, Hamza Yusuf — whose name was searched online by the Orlando shooter before his death — has been an outspoken critic of the Islamic State, resulting in his inclusion on a shortlist of Muslim scholars who have gotten death threats because of their views. Members of the college community said Thursday they know they need to be ready for the worst.
“It’s something that, unfortunately, we have to expect now,” said a woman who works at Zaytuna who asked not to be named due to safety and privacy concerns. “And I think, specifically since this is a Muslim college, looking at the political climate … this is something we should all really really know and be prepared to handle.”
The focus of the drill, said Berkeley Police Sgt. Spencer Fomby, who organized the event, was twofold: first, for officers to neutralize immediate, apparent threats in the building with a quick sweep, and then to bring inside medical teams as part of a “rescue task force” to care for the wounded. Fomby said this type of training is similar to what Berkeley first responders have practiced in regional Urban Shield drills over the past decade.
“We know from studying these events and going to debriefs of these events for different agencies, the ones that were trained and prepared had better outcomes,” Fomby said, referencing the deadly massacres at Sandy Hook, Columbine, San Bernardino and nearby Oikos University. “We know that we have to create some type of ‘stress inoculation’ for these officers. We can’t afford to have officers who don’t function at a high level under stress.”
He told Zaytuna community members: “We hope that we never have to come here. And never have to use these skills. But we need to be prepared to deal with anything that might happen.”
Thursday morning, officers worked on basic skills such as checking buildings for threats, handling weapons, moving as a team and effective communication. In the afternoon, at Zaytuna, they ran through two elaborate scenarios. As the training begins, a dispatcher with a script sends an officer to the call; it’s the beat officer who would be dispatched first on a typical weekend. Inside the building, that officer hears gunfire, and reports back about it, which triggers more officers to enter campus.
When they get inside, there is screaming and the sound of more gunshots. The fire alarm is ringing loudly and incessantly. Officers run through the building trying to locate the source of the gunfire, take down the gunmen, and triage the victims. Outside, police and medical leaders work together in a “unified command” post to make sure their resources are in sync. (A clip of part of one of the scenarios appears below.)
Fomby said the chaos is by design: the piercing alarm makes it hard to focus. Role players are told to make noise, cry for help, run at — and into — the officers. Those with wounds are pleading for help, and officers must work to pass by them to remove immediate threats first. In addition, for the first time, officers wore special laser-triggered vests that shocked them when they were shot.
“They have to be able to receive all this information, all the stimuli, at the same time, and keep focused on the priorities of their work as they’re moving through the problem,” Fomby said. In a real disaster, he continued, “they have to make decisions that are going to affect the situation in a positive way. The way you do that is to stress them out in training.”
Berkeley Police Officer Beau Hunt, one of the shooters in the drill, described the training as “top tier” because of its realistic nature.
“There are all these things that we don’t really get to do because most of the situations that we get to work in are very sterile: abandoned buildings, condemned buildings, and things like that,” he told a group of role players. “Not only that, but now we get to know the building. If there is a situation here, then we have that to fall back on.”
Fomby estimated that perhaps 150 people participated in Thursday’s training: two BPD patrol teams, police trainers in red shirts, a police dispatcher, 70 students and faculty from Zaytuna, and 15 Berkeley CERT volunteers. Several dozen more came from medical organizations: the Berkeley Medical Reserve Core (who are EMTs at Cal), Alameda County EMS, private ambulance companies from Contra Costa County including AMR, Bayshore, Royal and Falck, and a private doctor from San Leandro who served as a medical advisor to the drill.
“It’s good to know what’s out there,” one student told Berkeleyside, of the various first responders who took part in the drill. “Especially just seeing how many police officers came and how many people were ready to help us out. That was nice to see. Because you never know. You think, sometimes, two police officers are going to come in. And it’s like, what’s that going to do?”
Agreed Catherine Hamze, who is in charge of operations for the college: “I think we all feel a lot more secure in where we are and what’s offered to us as protection.”
Fomby said Zaytuna has asked him to return to campus to teach more about how students and staff can prepare themselves to be safer during an active-shooter situation. City of Berkeley staff has recently made a similar request, and private businesses, schools and local organizations have asked Fomby to train them, too.
BPD has done similar drills for officers and firefighters in the past at the Berkeley Adult School and at Berkeley High. Officers have trained at the Jewish Community Center as well. Sgt. Andrew Frankel, Berkeley Police spokesman and a member of the department’s Special Response Team, said the skills officers learn in active-shooter drills and large-scale scenarios such as Urban Shield are critically important.
“It’s sort of the domino effect: Each officer that gets touched with this type of training, there’s a broader effect that it has on our daily patrol response,” Frankel said. “We benefit from this training and our community benefits from it.”
Fomby said, in particular, the “rescue task force” piece of the training is one with broad applications in Berkeley. The approach was used in recent protests in the city where medics, protected by officers, had to wade into the crowd to render aid to the wounded. He said he’s heard the concerns that programs such as Urban Shield are geared toward militarization, but said its main training focus is actually preparation. He hopes to do active-shooter drills in Berkeley on an annual basis going forward. Finding realistic locations and scenarios can be a challenge, however, which is one reason the regional exercise is so important, he said.
“It’s our responsibility as public safety professionals to be prepared for things we know might happen. The reality is the same officers who are crime prevention officers, CIT officers, the ones going to barking dog and alarm calls, and giving presentations at schools, are the ones who are going to have to respond to an active-shooter event,” Fomby said. “Officers need to have the training to respond should that happen. There isn’t some special team of officers who are going to show up immediately. These patrol officers that are working the street every day, they have to know how to manage that situation.”
Council set to look Tuesday at federal money for police training, tools
The Berkeley City Council is set to discuss Tuesday night whether to continue its Urban Shield participation. The timing is coincidental, Fomby said, as Thursday’s training was planned over the past year and required extensive coordination long before the council agenda was set.
One of the most outspoken critics of the training, at City Hall, has been West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila. In a recent meeting she co-hosted with another city official, Davila said “she believes that BPD does not need terrorist training because Berkeley community members are not terrorists,” according to the Daily Californian.
Davila has also tried to block BPD plans to get an armored white panel van for officers because federal money, from the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) — which also funds Urban Shield — would be used for the purchase. That item, too, is set for Tuesday night’s agenda.
“I have an issue with Urban Shield and UASI money being used for this purpose,” she said at a meeting in December. She did not elaborate.
Said Andrea Prichett, in an op-ed on Berkeleyside in 2015, “I suggest that BPD be kept out of Urban Shield war games entirely and instead be encouraged to have a meet and greet with the real people they are supposed to be protecting and serving. We are a real place with real people who matter to us very much. The continued militarization of BPD is out of step with the values of this community and it is time for a new direction for BPD.” Davila recently appointed Prichett, who helped found Berkeley Copwatch, to the city’s Police Review Commission.
BPD says it hopes to use the panel van for calls to scenes when criminals are reported to be armed, or in active-shooter situations when officers might need to rescue hostages.
As for Urban Shield overall, the program was created to train first responders in how to handle disaster scenarios in the communities they serve, according to proponents. Police and fire first responders in many cities, such as San Francisco, Austin and Dallas, along with international teams from Brazil, Israel, France and other countries, have participated.