“Two confirmed dead,” squawked the police radio. Elmhurst police officers stormed inside the Mill Theatre as the radio relayed the message that “numerous 911 calls” had been placed from the EC campus regarding an active shooter inside the theatre.
The scene was a simulation, part of a three-day training program held between July 26 and July 28 during which EC partnered with the Elmhurst Police Department, the Elmhurst Fire Department, and Elmhurst emergency services to address each agency’s response in the event of a campus shooter incident.
The program’s necessity stems from the troubling fact that campus shootings in the United States has increased exponentially over the last decade. There have been at least 160 incidents since 2013, as reported through a study conducted by Everytown, an organization that studies gun violence in the nation.
During the first half of each day, officers from the Elmhurst Police Department underwent training in Dinkmeyer Hall during which they discussed possible strategies for various incidents. Later, the Elmhurst Fire Department and Dupage County Emergency Communications (DuComm) — the agency that handles police and fire dispatch in the city of Elmhurst — joined the officers for an exercise inside the Mill Theatre.
The goal of the exercise was to provide officers with a way to apply the lessons they learned during training to a live scenario. Volunteers from the Elmhurst Citizens’ Police Academy (CPA) assisted in the exercise by acting out various active shooter scenarios inside the theatre. CPA alum Richard Doyle played the role of the offender all three days of the program, an experience he described as being very realistic.
“It’s a lot of fun playing the bad guy, but it gets very scary and intense, especially when you’ve got all these guys running at you with AR-15 rifles,” he said, referencing the guns loaded with paintballs that were used for the exercise.
“They’re firing rounds at you and you hear them whizzing by your head and nearly missing you and it changes your mind,” Doyle added. “I think if more criminals did something like this, they might think twice before committing a crime.”
The exercise began when a first group of four officers entered the Mill Theatre as the radio described the suspect as an “armed white male in a white shirt.” Shortly thereafter, a second and then third group of officers followed. The staggering of officers was meant to imitate the real-life protocol of backup officers arriving on the scene of a crime after the initial police response.
Once inside the theatre, the officers worked to identify the shooter amongst the crowd in the dimly lit room with no prior knowledge of the scenario. The outcome varied each time the exercise was conducted, but the offender was either shot or taken into custody each time.
While the officers were still inside the theatre, they regularly updated the number of casualties on the radio to communicate the number of ambulances that were needed. In one version of the exercise, the fire alarm inside the theatre was sounded, making it difficult for officers to clearly hear each other on the radio and thus forcing them to find alternative ways to communicate from inside the building.
Approximately 10 minutes into the exercise, ambulances had started to arrive at the scene, although they were physically present on campus since the beginning of the exercise. The delay was meant to simulate the time it would take for paramedics to arrive in a real-life incident and to ensure the area was secure so as to avoid more casualties.
Once the offender had been shot or taken into custody, several officers began escorting victims out to triage areas where they were treated by medics, while others began securing the area by posting officers at var- ious intervals to ensure there were no more offenders.
The exercise concluded when the area was deemed secured and all victims had been brought out of the theatre.
Deputy Chief Michael McLean of the Elmhurst Police Department explained that the order the officers worked in during the exercise can be attributed to a structure based on priorities.
“When there’s a real incident, ahead of time, we have structures in place so the officers know what their responsibilities are. In this instance, the officers’ first job is to locate the shooter and to neutralize him — that means either arresting him and taking him into custody, or unfortunately shooting him if we have to to keep him from hurting other people,”
McLean went on to explain that the second and third priorities include tending to the injured, and then finally, securing the area and starting to investigate.
The most important part of the exercise for the Elmhurst Police Department was working with the other agencies to have a clear communication plan in place, according to McLean. He explained that such extreme incidents require prior run-throughs in order to be handled as effectively as possible.
“Some incidents that policemen and firemen handle are slow and you can take your time to think about it and go through an investigation,” said McLean.
“But with something like this, where lives are on the line and seconds really count, you really have to have the plans worked out ahead of time and the relationships worked out ahead of time to ensure you can handle it the right way.”
The exercise was the first of its kind on the EC campus, according to Jeff Kedrowski, executive director of security and emergency management at Elmhurst College, who was in charge of the organization of the training program and exercise.
“We have hosted training like this on campus before, but each training event is a little different... This is the first time that we have had the Elmhurst Police Department and Elmhurst Fire Department training together on campus for an active shooter event,” he said.
In organizing the training, Kedrowski worked to bring the exercise as close to a real-life scenario as possible. He said such exercises are necessary so that in the case of a real incident, all agencies involved are able to coordinate their plans effectively.
“This exercise gave the police and fire personnel the opportunity to practice together so they are better prepared for an incident, and gave the College a chance to coordinate our response plans with our municipal partners,” he said.
Kedrowski said it is not likely that EC will host the same training program on its campus again, but suggested it might see more multiple-agency training programs and exercises in the future.