Crisis drill provides training tools

Christina Smith and Donelle Pardee Whiting
As part of the first response team, officer Jason Ernst is focused on the "gunmen" who took over Washington Community High School May 21. Police, school officials and emergency personnel conducted a crisis drill at the high school.

In a staged scene, Washington Community High School students fell victim to two armed “gunmen” May 21 when the school administration, police department and fire department conducted a lockdown drill.

During the crisis drill at WCHS, 12 students from the Class of 2008 portrayed shooting victims.

Adult actors outside portrayed upset parents, complete with crying, screaming and wailing as Washington Police Department members entered the school after it went to a Code Red lockdown because of an unknown number of “shooters” in the building.

Crisis scenario

Upon entering the building, the police officers were under fire from officers Greg Patterson and Curtis Marshall, who pretended to be the shooters.

After subduing the “gunmen,” the first response officers called in another team to secure the school before students could be evacuated.

As part of the drill, emergency medical technicians evaluated the wounded and prioritized them based on their “injuries.”

Later into the drill, an officer reported finding two pipe bombs and pretended to call the Peoria Police Department’s Bomb Squad to come and deactivate the devices.

Once the building was secure, students were evacuated. Superintendant Dr. James Dunnan said it took about 17 minutes to release the students to the football field.

OSF Saint Francis’ Life Flight helicopter landed on the school’s practice football field, and medical personnel loaded Holly Carter for transport. Carter “suffered” from a neck wound.


In addition to Washington personnel, Northern Tazewell County Rescue Squad, Illinois State Police, Tazewell County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency officials and Emergency Medical Technicians also participated in the drill.

Law enforcement members, residents, administrators from Washington’s grade schools and a few students walked through and around the school to evaluate how they thought the drill went and any problems they noticed.

Tazewell County Sheriff Chris McKinney, an evaluator, said he noticed a few things that still need some work.

“As far as I know, this is the only crisis drill to be done in this area,” McKinney said.

McKinney, a rapid response instructor who trains officers to respond to an active shooter, said he evaluated the officers’ response, both those entering the school and those securing the outside perimeter of the building.

“The officers accomplished their goal of stopping the shooters, treating the wounded and getting everyone out safely,” McKinney said.

With evaluators from a variety of backgrounds, McKinney said the evaluators allowed the Washington Police Department to get more than a law enforcement view on the overall drill.

“In a real-life situation, we would have East Peoria, state and county police officers and EMTs, along with Eureka and Woodford County officers and EMTs,” McKinney said.

“Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is going to go away,” McKinney said. “Washington’s drill is a good training situation for any agency.”

Other law enforcement evaluators included: Illinois State Police Capt. Billy Merrill, Tazewell County Sheriff Sgt. Tracy Dickson and East Peoria Police Department Sgt. John Kamm.

McKinney said Washington Police Chief Jim Kuchenbecker said he would like to see annual drills held at different schools in the area.

“If other drills are held, schools and agencies could benefit from the experience of the Washington officers,” McKinney said.

District and school administrator response

WCHS dean of students Todd Hellrigel said one of the biggest issues during the drill was communication.

“We weren’t sure if the police were to contact us or if we were to contact them before we started to evacuate students,” Hellrigel said, adding the PA system did not work after electricity to the school was cut-off during the lock down.

“From start to finish, we got all of the students out in 17 minutes, which was quicker than I had expected,” Hellrigel said.

Dunnan and Mike Sluder, dean of student services, went from room to room dismissing students and staff to leave the building, with instructions to head for the school’s football field across the street.

“We encountered real-life problems during the drill, such as a student who wanted to leave,” Hellrigel said.

Dunnan said he and Sluder waited to start dismissing students until he was told the building was secure.

After getting permission to start evacuating students and staff, Dunnan said people moved pretty quick.

“I think we did OK on (the drill),” Dunnan said. “It was a good situation for everybody because if this were to really happen, it would not be the first time to bring all of these people together.”

Dunnan said Hellrigel and Detective Ro Gerkin started meeting to plan the drill in November.

Other viewpoints

Clinton Scheirer, a 2008 WCHS graduate who played a student victim, said he thought the police and rescue personnel could have done better.

“I was in the art hallway and nobody ever came to help me, even though I had severe burns and glass sticking out of my arms and neck,” Scheirer said.

Scheirer said he heard the police call a code red for a lock down and a code green for all clear, and he was still lying on the floor.

“I just hope if there ever really were dead or injured people in the school, that they would help them out,” Scheirer said. “I don’t think they were as organized as they should have been, but hopefully, this (drill) helps them.”

Shelli McClellan, a member of the WCHS school board, said she organized the “angry parents” for the drill.

“From what I saw, it seemed very well-coordinated,” McClellan said. “The students were very good with their roles as victims.”

McClellan said the parents wanted to know what was going on and what access they would have to the building.

At one point in the drill, a Citizen’s Police Academy graduate pretended to be married to a teacher in the school and attempted to enter the building, but was stopped by officers.

A group of other academy graduates pretended to be angry parents that wanted to get inside to find out if their children were OK.

“It’s a sad commentary on our society today that we have to practice for this kind of an event,” McClellan said.

“Hopefully, the drill will help bring awareness and education throughout the education community in Washington.”

McClellan said other schools, located within and outside of Washington, could learn from the high school’s drill.

“It doesn’t hurt to be a leader instead of a follower,” McClellan said, referring to WCHS being the first school in the area to organize a crisis drill.

During the post-drill debriefing, East Peoria Fire Chief Mike Vaughn said having a similar drill could benefit East Peoria.

“For this being the first time, I think the drill went very well,” Kuchenbecker said.

Kuchenbecker, who previously worked in the Chicago area, said the May 21 drill is his seventh crisis drill.

“I’ve been doing this for a while in the Chicago Metro area,” Kuchenbecker said. “This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I got here four years ago.”

Seeing how the different agencies responded and worked together was a main part of the drill, Kuchenbecker said.

“No. 1, like in any instance, is communication,” Kuchenbecker said. “We found out the radios didn’t work in some spots of the building, and different law enforcement agencies were on different frequencies.”

Kuchenbecker said he wants to build on what the officers and other emergency agencies learned from the drill.

“Nobody has ever done this before,” Kuchenbecker said. “I am very proud of all these people and the passion they had while taking it seriously.”