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Police, fire use James City mall to rehearse shooter response

Vacant outlet mall serves as a valuable training ground

By Susan Robertson, srobertson@vagazette.com

The Virginia Gazette

6:55 PM EDT, June 24, 2014

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JAMES CITY — Networking is a big part of business, and when that business is law enforcement, knowing the players and what they have to offer is absolutely crucial.

Capabilities, gear and gizmos vary from agency to agency, but with a common mission, sharing resources is expected. Chris Thornton with Hampton police said a regional training exercise Tuesday and Wednesday at Williamsburg Outlet Mall gave law enforcement from across the Peninsula the chance to train together and see what assets each has to offer.

"For the frequency or increase of these active shooter incidents around the country," said Lt. Eric Peterson with James City police, who had 17 members of the county's SWAT team present for training. "It's imperative that we be able to communicate and function as one unit – as the Peninsula – and these are some good steps to make toward that."

Williamsburg Outlet Mall's recent closure presented a huge opportunity for law enforcement. Tactical teams from James City County, Newport News and Hampton police departments and the York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office took part in the training. Joining them were paramedics with the James City Fire Department and York County Fire and Rescue. Agents from the FBI also participated.

The building, laid out like spokes of a wheel and full of alcoves and internal hallways, offered a variety of experiences for officers, according to Lt. Eric Randall with Newport News police. He said during the two-day training teams would get the chance to search and clear a building, learn to handle situations involving explosives, get up close with tactical medicine and handling casualties in the field, and work on hostage negotiation.

On Tuesday the building was divided up into five areas so teams could rotate through different training areas. On Wednesday officers will put what they learned to use in a full-scale active shooter drill.

Syncing up multiple agencies' schedules for training can be a challenge, Peterson said. Cpl. Mary Shackleford with Hampton police said the coordination it took to bring the two-day training together exhibited the region's commitment to mutual aid.

Thornton said it's about eliminating the "us and them" mentality and breaking down walls between departments.

"I can't stress enough how beneficial this is," he said. "When and if it does happen, we've already worked out all the kinks."

Forging those partnerships makes handling a real world situation that much easier, Thornton said. He explained that knowing people from other departments comes in handy when mutual aid is needed at odd hours of the day. For example, he can give the assisting agency a heads up if he knows who to call.

He recalled a situation in which Hampton called on Newport News to use "throwbots." The rolling robots can be thrown into a building and used as electronic eyes and ears during an active threat incident, according to Recon Robots.

Oftentimes incidents can last 24 hours or longer, and supporting other teams is a necessity, according to Peterson. He said that's why they can't afford to wait until there's a real threat to come together.

Peterson said his team included veterans and newer officers less experienced with interdepartmental cooperation. Bob Ryalls, assistant chief with the James City County Fire Department, said the training fosters understanding for all participants.

"It opens them up to a better understanding of what is going to happen so they can think several steps ahead," he said.

Ryalls said so much has changed since Columbine, the 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school where two heavily armed students killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before taking their own lives.

He noted that paramedics and emergency personnel enter scenes well behind law enforcement when there is an active threat. He said training like that conducted at the outlet mall gives paramedics a chance to reassess their position in the field.

In simple terms, Ryalls added, "It gives us the opportunity to see what we can and cannot do."

Robertson can be reached at 757-345-2342.