Rapid response for school shootings needs planning
Fauquier High School School Resource Officer Sal Torelli checks video cameras positioned throughout the school's expansive campus. Photo by Randy Litzinger
Fauquier County's planned response to school shootings is not where it should be, said two ranking sheriff's deputies at Tuesday's Public Safety Committee Meeting.
Capt. Patrick Coffey and Lt. Ray Acors, both of the sheriff's patrol division, got candid about the ability of law enforcement to respond to a potential shooting.
"We feel good about our initial response, but we're lacking in the incident command side," Coffey said.
What that means, Coffey said, is that sheriff's deputies know what they're supposed to do if someone opens fire in a Fauquier County school. They know how to act swiftly, set up a command post and get people to safety.
Where they fall short, he said, is in pre-planning and working with other agencies.
"We learned the hard way in Prince William, because we had Bull Run Middle School," said Supervisor Chris Granger.
Granger, who works as a captain in the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue, answered the call in June of 2004, when teachers discovered a student loading a shotgun in the restroom of Bull Run Middle School.
During that incident, Granger said, police and firefighters arrived and carried out their roles. But they didn't work together seamlessly, because they hadn't made a specific plan for that particular school.
The Fauquier Department of Fire and Rescue does not yet have a specific "assignment" -- a pre-planned number of fire engines for dispatchers to send out -- for a school shooting, said Fauquier Chief Tom Billington.
The sheriff's department also sees room for improvement in the emergency plans of Fauquier County Public Schools, Acors said.
Acors wanted to be fair, because no school officials were present at Tuesday's meeting to defend themselves. But, he was also frank.
"For years and years and years, we've been saying the same thing, which is, 'Hide in a corner,'" Acors said. "And it's not working."
For instance, Acors said, all of the county's schools have pre-designated areas for evacuation in emergencies. But those areas might not keep teachers and children safe from a shooter, he said.
"You wouldn't want to send your students out to a ball field knowing that there could be a secondary device or something out there," Acors said.
Acors suggested reaching out to local businesses near schools, like the Warrenton Walmart, for more remote -- and safe -- evacuation sites during potential shootings.
The sheriff's office also needs to pre-plan coordinated responses with Warrenton police, Acors said.
Warrenton Chief Louis Battle, present at the meeting, agreed.
"We'll probably be [at Warrenton schools] before most of the sheriff's office," Battle said, "but I envision a subordinate role: setting up your command post, establishing a perimeter, starting to do evacuations.
"We really only go in if we have to make a rescue," Battle said.
Warrenton police have assault rifles for emergencies like shootings, and will soon have tactical shield training, Battle said.
Warrenton police are willing to train alongside sheriff's deputies, Battle said. But active shooter training has become a casualty of the county's recession budgeting.
"The last two years, we've lacked funding for the training," Coffey said.
The sheriff's office's last refresher course was in 2011, and cost $30,000 in overtime funds, Coffey said. Twelve of the county's 40 patrol officers need active shooter training, as do seven of its 14 detectives, he said.
Public safety and school officials have done work to close safety gaps, Coffey said. They have agreed upon standardized maps of all school facilities, he said. And by next school year, every door on every school will be marked, inside and out, with 18-inch high numbers in reflective paint.
School personnel continue to install cameras and security buzzers connected to monitors inside the schools, and those cameras can eventually be fed to Fauquier's 9-1-1 dispatchers, Coffey said.
But their final goal -- a package of training and pre-planning so meticulous that firefighters and police who have never before set foot on school grounds know exactly where to go, and exactly what other agencies should be doing -- is not yet within reach, he said.
"Unfortunately, training does come down to money," Coffey said.