Weather Forecast


Mock mayhem: Emergency responders train for mass shooting

Duluth police officers Ian Johnson (left) and Nick Lepak (center) along with a U.S. Border Patrol agent, search Comfort Systems room by room looking for any additional perpetrators during the mock emergency response exercise Wednesday morning. They’re holding simulation guns. (Bob King / 1 / 5
Emergency response workers evacuate an “injured” person to a St. Luke’s Life Flight helicopter during Wednesday morning’s disaster drill. (Bob King / / 5
Duluth police officer Taylor Stutsman walks past Jason Smitke, one of the “shooters,” as she secures office cubicles at Comfort Systems during the mock emergency response exercise Wednesday morning. Duluth police and fire and other emergency response agencies participated in the drill. (Bob King / 3 / 5
Tactical Response Team members secure the garage at Comfort Systems during Wednesday’s emergency drill. (Bob King / / 5
Members of the Tactical Response Team keep an eye out for potential perpetrators while some of their members use a stealth search pole camera to look for potential bombs planted in trucks in the Comfort Systems garage during the disaster drill Wednesday. (Bob King / / 5

Local police officers, firefighters and emergency medical responders rushed to Garfield Avenue on Wednesday morning for a training exercise that put their crisis-handling skills to test.

The situation — a mass shooting spree and bomb scare, with perpetrators still at large  — was a scripted event put on by local authorities, but that was hardly evident from the reactions of police officers who swarmed the site and medical personnel who made quick work of evacuating “victims” from the building.

“The stress was palpable,” Mike Tusken, Duluth deputy police chief, said shortly after the training exercise. “You could see it in the officers’ faces. They didn’t act much differently than I would anticipate them acting in a real event.”

The mock emergency, held at the Comfort Systems building, was a simulation of what might occur in the event of a mass shooting.

While such an event would certainly be unlike anything local authorities have dealt with, it’s something they must be prepared for, Tusken said, noting the increasingly common mass shootings at schools, movie theaters and shopping malls throughout the United States. It’s an issue that can hit major metropolitan areas and rural communities alike, he said.

“We would be very remiss in delivering quality public services to the community if we didn’t prepare as if this could happen any day,” Tusken said. “It’s something we hope never happens, but we have to, in this day and age, be much more vigilant in doing training and knowing our potential threats.”

While a few organizers planned the exercise, the script was unknown to most personnel arriving on scene. It was up to officers to assess the situation as it unfolded and react appropriately.

A call went out to emergency personnel around 8:30 a.m., and police officers quickly surrounded and entered the building. Inside, they exchanged gunfire — using “simunition” guns that fire harmless plastic projectiles — with two active shooters. Meanwhile, crews were working to safely diffuse an improvised explosive device found inside a backpack at the scene.

As police worked to secure the scene, medical personnel carried dozens of actors, covered in fake blood, to safety.

Emergency vehicles lined the streets, while two helicopters landed in a field across the street. A LifeFlight crew prepared to airlift victims to the hospital, while a State Patrol helicopter deposited tactical officers on the building’s roof.

In all, the scene amounted to controlled chaos for about 200 participants.

Duluth police Sgt. Bob Shene, who works in the department’s training unit, said active-shooter training drills have previously been held at Marshall School and the former Central High School. Those exercises, however, have had their limitations.

“We found that the Police Department had their plan, the Fire Department had their plan and the hospitals had their plan,” Shene said. “There were places we had missed. We hadn’t worked together to see how it would all come together.”

Shene spent about a year planning Wednesday’s multi-agency exercise, along with Duluth Deputy Fire Chief Charlie Smith and Lt. Rick Slatten of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad.

Participants in the exercise included the Duluth police and fire departments, St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and Rescue Squad, Minnesota State Patrol, Border Patrol and Gold Cross Ambulance, along with law enforcement officers from Hermantown, Proctor and the University of Minnesota Duluth.

At first glance, officials said, the exercise appears to have gone well. But the process is not over yet, Shene said. A critical second phase still remains: gathering all the participants and analyzing the results.

 “We’ll get together and talk about the things we did well and the things we need to do better,” he said. “These things are unique and require us to have some general protocols for how we’re going to take care of people and handle the situation.”