It looked like something from a movie or television show. Fortunately, it was only a drill.
On Sept. 25, two armed robbers fleeing police ran into the Northwest Regional Center (NWRC) where they shot at least four people. Minutes later, SWAT arrived and entered the building where they shot and killed one of the gunmen. The second suspect barricaded himself in a second-floor faculty lounge with several hostages.
The bad guys were actually members of the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol, and their victims were College employee and student volunteers pretending to be shot as part of an emergency response drill. The enactment was a test of the College’s Emergency Response Plan and the Police Department’s readiness to handle such a crisis in a city that is home to dozens of colleges and universities.
Randolph Merced, the College’s head of Security, said the drill went very well. “Our goals have been identified, measured and accomplished,” Merced said. “Our emergency communications system and technology efforts worked well.”
Generally speaking, in an emergency, College Security would send a brief text message to alert students, faculty and staff via the e2Campus emergency mass messaging system. An electronic message also would be broadcast on video monitors located around the College’s campuses.
“We did find one or two emergency response members did not get their emergency text messages, but that was because of an enrollment miscue,” Merced said. “When the text could not be delivered, individuals received a phone call, simulated of course.”
Merced also was pleased with the communications between his office and police, who provided College Security with updates as the drill progressed. A goal of the drill was to test communications between the Main Campus Emergency Response Management Team and one of the College’s three Regional Centers.
Anthony Driggers, NWRC director, exited the building shortly after SWAT arrived. He was immediately taken into the windowless rear of the SWAT van, which was being used as command central for the exercise. After being questioned by the police about the initial invasion, Driggers spent much of his time on his cell phone briefing Cabinet members who were at the Main Campus. Their task was to decide what steps the College would take to ensure the safety of all students, faculty and staff, and what messages to release internally and externally during the crisis.
“What we did find, from an emergency management standpoint, is that an incident such as active shooter is dynamic and information gathering is not perfect,” Merced said. “We looked to get answers from Driggers that he did not yet have and the police could not provide as the situation was unfolding.”
Cloistered inside the SWAT van, Driggers could see none of the unfolding action and the police hostage negotiators shared precious few details. “I was surprised at how little info. I had to give our people,” Driggers said during the debriefing that followed the exercise.
The police have a reason for not releasing many details, said Capt. Walt Smith, commanding officer of the Police Department’s Homeland Security Unit. “We don’t want too many details of an ongoing situation to end up on TV, where the bad guys can see it,” Smith said. “We don’t want them to know what we are doing and lose our advantage.”
Security representatives from La Salle University, Saint Joseph’s University, Bucks County Community College and Maryland’s Baltimore Community College came to observe the exercise in preparation for similar drills planned for their facilities.
The standoff ended with the gunman releasing the hostages unharmed and surrendering to police.
The September drill was the second emergency response exercise conducted at the College in cooperation with the Police Department. The first was conducted on the Main Campus and involved a simulated armed attack on President Curtis’ office in the Mint Building.
“The idea of doing this before the emergency happens is really critical,” Smith said. “Our guys need the practice so that when the real deal goes down, their training will kick in, and they will know what to do.”