LONGMONT — Four police officers moved stealthily down a hallway at Longmont High School.
Dressed in bulletproof vests and full SWAT-style helmets, they hugged the wall in a diamond formation, with one man taking point, two in the middle and one facing behind, making sure nobody could sneak up behind them.
Suddenly, four rifle shots rang out and a police officer fell into the hallway before them, clutching his chest.
Luckily for Sgt. Doug Ross of the Longmont Police Department, this was a simulation to instruct police how to handle school shooting situations and he was not shot with real ammunition.
The police department took advantage of spring break and vacant hallways to run its Rapid Emergency Deployment, or RED, training this week.
The four officers quickly dragged Sgt. Ross to safety and then entered the auditorium’s shop area where they heard a hysterical janitor, played by another police officer, screaming that he needed help because another officer was shot and bleeding to death.
The primary goal of the exercise was to “rescue the two people who were hurt,” Ross said.
The first team to go through the simulation Thursday afternoon waited a while to get the injured officer out of the room. They also got in a gun battle with the suspect and another officer was shot.
The second team through, entered the room quickly, immediately set up a perimeter and moved the injured officers to safety. Because the team did not fire weapons at the suspected gunman at the end of the hallway, the gunman did not fire on the officers, allowing them to secure the room and call for the SWAT team.
The goal of the all-day training is to give officers the skills they need to immediately assess the threat level of any situation and act appropriately, said patrol Sgt. Mike Bell, who observed the exercises Thursday but participated in them Monday.
Officers have to “decide when they need to force the issue to save a life and when they can contain (the situation without using force),” he said.
About 100 Longmont officers participated in the program this week.
Every officer below the rank of commander was required to participate in the training session, but many above that rank showed up to observe, including Chief Mike Butler.
In Thursday’s exercise, an unknown person broke into the school at 2 a.m., tripping an alarm and drawing police to the scene. The first two patrol officers on the scene were shot when they surprised the suspect in the rooms behind the school auditorium. The building was empty except for the janitor and the shooting suspect.
Because it was not a Columbine-like situation in which numerous civilians were in danger, the police had the luxury of calling for backup and trying to find a more peaceful resolution to the problem.
RED training was developed after police were criticized for their handling of the Columbine tragedy. Instead of entering the building immediately, they contained the area around the school and waited for the SWAT team to arrive.
“What we learned from Columbine and other situations is that we could have people bleeding and dying inside, so officers needed to take immediate action without waiting for SWAT in an active shooter situation,” said Sgt. Tim Perkins of the Longmont Police Department.
The RED training is being used across the country to help regular patrol officers — who arrive at most crime scenes first — make fast entry into a building using SWAT team tactics, to rescue injured people and get the shooter or shooters under control, Perkins said.
During the morning sessions, officers went through three hours of classroom training. They then were split into groups of four or five and trained by SWAT professionals on how to move down a hallway, how to enter a room, how to rescue people and how to secure stairwells.
They then participated in three “force on force” scenarios in which they were shot at and forced to shoot at different suspects.
This training has “built up my confidence because it is so life-like,” Bell said.
When officers practice at the shooting range, they often wonder how they will feel and how they will react when someone is shooting at them, he said.
“It puts you right in the middle and helped me mentally a lot,” Bell said.
“If we train for it, learn how to do it, we can be prepared for what is going to happen in there,” Perkins said.
Other participants said their adrenaline surged when they were fired on, even when they knew the ammunition was not real.
When an officer is shot during the exercise, he or she is out of the simulation.
“They learn the hard way that their tactics weren’t right,” Perkins said. “It’s real dynamic, real high stress, but hopefully they can learn to do it in that environment rather than when real bullets are flying.”
Patrol Sgt. Dave Orr said his experience through the first scenario showed there was “a lot of room for improvement. It was a frustrating scenario and you can’t prepare for every eventuality.”
In light of recent school shootings, RED training has become more important than ever, said SWAT Team Commander Paul Zuber.
To date, there have been 27 school shootings around the world, he said.
This is the fourth time Longmont police have participated in RED training since 1999, and the department is trying to find a way to offer it every year instead of every other year.
“It is something we need to be prepared for and pray to God we never have to use it,” Sgt. Ross said.
Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at email@example.com.