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Angry students with guns and bombs are not part of the daily routine at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
But March 28, the last Friday of Spring Break, more than 300 area emergency responders as well as campus police and university leadership forced themselves to think of the unthinkable, multiple catastrophic violent acts on the normally peaceful UCCS campus, with the goal of keeping students, faculty and staff safe.
The event in law enforcement parlance was a full scale mass casualty exercise. In reality, the event was an opportunity for various agencies representing the city, county, state and private companies to work together and test how various systems would work when stressed by events far from the realm of daily routines.
The scenario involved a shooter with a bomb strapped on her back in the Engineering and Applied Science building followed by a second shooter in the Science building who releases a toxic plume. Faculty and staff in town over the break were recruited to play various roles, including injured victims, as police officers swarmed the campus and bomb and hazardous material removal experts moved in.
At one point, a group of students and parents from out of state, unable to reschedule a recruiting tour, watched as men in space suits entered Science while a Police SWAT team ran into Engineering.
“They were surprised that we were doing this,” Chris Beiswanger, assistant director, Student Recruitment and Admissions Counseling, said. “But, ultimately, they thought it was a good thing that we were doing to protect the safety of students.”
In process for more than eight months, officials with the City Office of Emergency Management and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, in coordination with the UCCS Public Safety Office and the Center for Homeland Security, worked to make the incident realistic. As fire trucks, police cars, ambulances and hazardous material removal squads gathered on North Nevada during an early morning drizzle, television news crews circled. The emergency crews staged on North Nevada but responded to dispatch calls, just as they would have in real-life. Later in the day, news media played themselves, participating in a mock press conference and firing questions about the shooter’s motives, the weapons used and how such an incident could have been prevented. Top state and local officials including CU Regent Kyle Hybl, Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera, and El Paso County commissioners Dennis Hisey and Amy Lathen observed the exercise.
In a post-event briefing, representatives from the Colorado Springs Police Department, Colorado Springs Fire Department, El Paso County Sheriff, American Medical Response, the Office of Emergency Management and the university talked about what went well in the exercise and what could be improved. While responses varied, improving communication was a common theme as participants talked about clogged radio channels, different protocols between agencies and varying terminologies.
After-event discussions will continue and will form a base for future emergency plans, Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said. She, campus vice chancellors, and Jim Spice, chief, Campus Police, will meet Monday to review the exercise and lessons learned while a formal after-action report is compiled.