Training for tragedy

Twenty Arvada first responders assisted during the Boulder mass shooting

Ryan Dunn and Steve Smith
Rdunn@coloradocommunitymedia.com and ssmith@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/30/21

The March 22 mass shooting in Boulder that claimed the lives of 10 people, including Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, was the seventh such incident in Colorado since 1993. Gun violence has become …

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Training for tragedy

Twenty Arvada first responders assisted during the Boulder mass shooting

Posted

The March 22 mass shooting in Boulder that claimed the lives of 10 people, including Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, was the seventh such incident in Colorado since 1993. Gun violence has become a pervasive issue in the state, with more than 20,000 gun-related deaths occurring between 1980 and 2018, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

As first responders to these situations, local police and emergency service departments undergo extensive training in handling crisis response scenarios.

In 2012, The Arvada Police Department became the first agency in the state to have a working Rescue Taskforce with local firefighters that allows personnel from both departments to be deployed to an unsafe situation to render aid. All Arvada Fire Protection District firefighters and ambulance personnel undergo training for the Rescue Taskforce.

Since 2008, the APD has required patrol officers to undergo single-officer response training for active shooter situations.

APD Lt. Michael Touchton, who heads up the department’s crisis response training, said that the department’s officers have access to a high level of training and expertise in this area.

“In Arvada, we are blessed with the ability to train our officers to a pretty high standard,” said Touchton. “We have a lot of subject-matter experts. [Deputy Chief A.J.] DeAndrea is one of the leading experts on response to active shooters and SWAT tactics.”

DeAndrea was part of the response team to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 as well as the Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006. Touchton said that the APD realized it needed to extend its tactical training to patrol officers in the wake of Columbine.

“We learned in 1999 after Columbine that we were going to have to start putting those tactics and that training into work for active shooter situations,” said Touchton, “because it’s a patrol officer dilemma now instead of waiting for a SWAT team. We don’t have the time to wait for a fully-equipped SWAT team to come deal with the situation where minutes and seconds matter.”

The APD’s training program extends to civilian employees of the city of Arvada and local schools as well. The program is called “Evacuate. Evade. Defend.” and is based on the federal “Run. Hide. Fight.” program.

“We understand that run, hide and fight are just actions, and there’s not a lot of description behind them,” said Touchton. “But when you evacuate that’s a process; we talk to them about the process. Evasion is staying out of sight; getting behind locked a door if you can. And then defend yourself - what does it mean to defend yourself?

“We talk to wide groups of people and 50 percent of the room get it when you say, `You need to fight for your life,’” continued Touchton. “The other 50 percent look at you like, `I haven’t fought since I was 7, what does that mean?’ But we talk about defending yourself and everybody understands, `How do I defend myself.’”

Touchton added that part of the APD’s crisis response training involves emergency first aid, including tourniquet work, chest seals and other methods of stopping bleeding so that if an injury is survivable, it can be addressed by a responder. He added that it can be just as vital for civilians to learn these response protocols in case they ever find themselves in a crisis situation.

“If citizens do the things that they can do and they take charge of their own safety,” said Touchton, “and they have a set of actions that they can do to make the scene safer for us to move into and eliminate or mitigate the loss of life, it’s going to help everybody that’s involved.”

Twenty officers and firefighters from the rescue task force responded to the March 22 shooting in Boulder, where they helped remove injured victims from the scene who benefited from life-saving measures.

The APD’s organizational philosophy in these situations is to analyze the situation in terms of their priorities of safety; people who are in imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death are of the highest priority for an aggressive response, constant evaluation of the situation comes next, with developing and carrying out tactical movements following.

APD officers receive 40 hours of training within their first year before they are assigned a patrol rifle. They have access to body armor and other equipment and undergo 10 hours of further tactical training once a year.

The APD is in the middle of a training session that began two weeks ago. In light of the tragic events that transpired on March 22, Touchton said the department is keeping a gauge on officer’s mental health and allowing opportunities to talk frankly about their feelings.

“[March 23, the day after the shooting] was an emotional day,” said Touchton. “I’m standing in front of a class after we just lost an officer in an active shooting, and I’m asking them to evaluate their ability to respond and if necessary - if they don’t have a backup, if it’s going to take minutes for a support officer to arrive on the scene - for them to evaluate the scene with the information they have effectively and make the decision whether it’s prudent for them to go now or wait.”

“At the heart of every officer is a person who’s trying to do the best job they possibly can,” Touchton continued. “When they are faced with somebody who’s taking lives, it is a very tense situation and to have our officers respond the way they do is courageous, and it is honorable.”

Weld County 

Tactical response training is not limited to Arvada and Jefferson County. Surrounding areas such as Weld County and Adams County also train their officers in tactical response protocols.

Weld County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Joe Moylan said deputies do several things for active shooter incidents and critical incidents with mass casualties. One is an annual exercise that involves other county law enforcement agencies as well as fire and ambulance crews. 

“Most of our instructors in the training division are certified in one or several disciplines offered through ALERRT, which stands for Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training,” Moylan said. “ALERRT is a national organization that essentially provides training to instructors. They have active shooter trainings geared toward law enforcement, fire, EMS and for the public, to name a few.” 

Instructors have certification for the law enforcement course. Moylan said that means they can teach active shooter response principles to other peace officers. 

“We have another deputy who is certified in the civilian course,” Moylan said. “For the last five to six years, he’s been providing active shooter training to employees of all of our other county departments. He also has worked with some of the local schools and churches.” 

Moylan added that schools and churches ask for the training. The department sets up a one- or two-day seminar. 

“Everyone, before they hit the streets, is run through some type of active shooter or critical incident training at our in-house POST Academy. It’s a topic that also comes up regularly during our advanced officer training,” Moylan said. “Deputies go through AOT every two weeks. We also have active shooter scenarios we can run deputies through on our simulator.” 

Adams County 

Adams County sheriff’s deputies train for mass-casualty incidents “as best we can,” according to spokesman Sgt. Adam Sherman. 

“In the past and when various schedules allow, we have done multi-jurisdictional training to incorporate various law enforcement agencies, Fire, EMS (at times we have had Flight For Life join the training scenario), etc., to hopefully make communication and completion of tasks/needs more fluid,” he said. “Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work to schedule these types of training.”  

Sherman brought such training to a narrower level. 

“I know here at the sheriff’s office we train for active shooters in our training academy, in-service training with deputies and collaborate when we can with our local fire/EMS crews,” he said. “But there is no `textbook’ training for these mass incidents, unfortunately, because as a law enforcement community we are always learning, assessing, and applying lessons from previous incidents.”

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