Preparing for the worst: Eagle County first responders collaborate in week-long active shooter drills
If you thought you saw public safety officials running around with rifles in downtown Edwards this week, you weren’t imagining things
In 2009, an active shooter at a bar in Vail took the life of one person and injured three others. A few years before that, a shooter turned a gun on a family he had been sharing a campsite with in Dotsero, killing one woman.
Avon Police Chief Greg Daly remembers these incidents because he was there. He recalled the names of both deceased victims easily — Dr. Gary Bruce Kitching was killed in Vail and Maria Madrid in Dotsero.
These lives lost were the impetus behind implementing annual, cross-agency active shooter trainings like the ones that took place in Edwards this week, Daly said.
Active shooter trainings have been standard procedure for law enforcement for many decades, but the lessons learned during the Columbine shooting of 1999 laid the groundwork for a significant shift in the “national paradigm” of how public safety officials thought about their response to shootings, Daly said.
The pre-Columbine approach to an active shooter was for police to form a perimeter around the area and wait for a SWAT team to arrive to go in and handle it, Daly said.
“Unfortunately, many kids were killed because of the delay of police officers getting in,” he said of the Columbine massacre.
“Our SWAT team is all part-time and we take a little bit of time to get activated and deployed,” Steve Vardaman, reserve deputy and tactical paramedic with the Eagle County SWAT team explained. “Active shooter events are typically over in a matter of minutes and so we rely on on-duty law enforcement, fire personnel and EMS personnel to respond. That’s the whole purpose of this training.”
After the Vail and Dotsero shootings brought this issue close to home more than a decade ago, Daly, Vardaman and a few others decided they wanted to make Eagle County stand out as an example of what cross-agency collaboration and communication should look like.
“It became a passion of ours,” Daly said.
As a result, trainees from the Vail, Avon and Eagle police departments, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol, the Eagle River Fire Protection District, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District and Eagle County Paramedics all joined together in varying sessions Tuesday through Friday to prepare for the worst, as they have done each year for the last 12 years.
There have been 255 mass shootings across the United States since the 2009 incident in Vail, according to data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national nonprofit organization which advocates for gun control and against gun violence. As a result, a total of 1,449 people were killed, and 961 others were injured. Everytown defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four individuals are killed with a firearm.
Three of these mass shootings took place in Colorado. In July of 2012, a gunman killed 12 people, injuring 70 others, at a midnight showing of Batman in an Aurora movie theater. In March of this year, a man opened fire in a King Soopers in Boulder, killing 10. In May, a man shot and killed his girlfriend along with five of her friends at a house party in Colorado Springs.
When different entities train together, they can respond more efficiently to these events because there is a level of trust already built up, said Bob Silva, a deputy sheriff with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s about getting to know all the people that we work with and building that trust … that’s very valuable,” said Silva, who served as an instructor for many of the drills taking place this week.
Men and women brandishing the uniforms of their various agencies gathered outside of the Eagle River Fire Protection District building in Edwards Wednesday evening, chatting as they waited for drills to begin.
Smaller group classes had been taking place all afternoon to train deputies on the various situations in which they might encounter an active shooter: at a distance outside, during a traffic stop, in an apartment complex.
To simulate this third environment, a training facility on the fire protection district’s campus was set up to look like a three-bedroom apartment – furniture, clothes and all. Trainees practiced entering in formation, heeding commands and responding to various “threats” in the form of targets placed within the structure.
In an active shooter situation, each agency, or group of agencies, has its own distinct role, Daly said. It is important to strategize their response around how they can best utilize each group’s skill set to its fullest potential, he said.
Law enforcement are called in to “neutralize the threat,” fire rescue officials do the search and rescue of victims and emergency medical services personnel treat those victims, he said.
Lieutenant Micah Rader of the Eagle River Fire Protection District said it is helpful to understand how each agency’s role fits into the broader picture of responding to these dangerous situations. He looked on as a group of law enforcement trainees approached a garage as if an active shooter were inside, remarking that it was a drill he had never seen before in two decades with the fire protection district.
“Normally we arrive 20 minutes after they’ve already made their entry and access into the building so this is my first exposure to what they do ahead of time,” Rader said.
In the past, fire and EMS teams would stand by in an active shooter situation and wait for law enforcement officials to bring victims out of the “hot zone” so that they could then evacuate and treat them, Daly said.
“The problem with that is, if somebody is shot, they can expire in 15 minutes if they don’t get any medical care,” he said.
Now, law enforcement officials go in first to take care of immediate threats, but fire and EMS personnel are brought in as soon as possible to recover any victims, Daly said.
At first, many were hesitant at the thought of entering the scene of an active shooting unarmed, said Vardaman, who is also the operations manager for Eagle County Paramedic Services. Cross-agency trainings like the one that took place this week help to ease those fears, he said.
“I think it’s always important to have a big picture view,” Rader said. “Our role is very defined so what we see is very narrow. To be able to see everything they’re doing ahead of time provides comfort … it’s that trust.”
It is important to note that active shooter events are few and far between in Eagle County, Daly said, and for that he is thankful. Still, it is crucial that the public safety officials that protect this valley are not lulled into a false sense of security.
“We as a county have to be prepared because it’s the difference of people potentially living from these type of injuries or dying,” Daly said. “So, we are constantly training and we take this training very seriously.”
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