“How did you get a green one?”
Janna Tolla, director of the Recreation Pool and one of my supervisors, looks incredulously at the color of my vest last week at the UC Davis Fire and Police Department’s safety drill.
“Don’t worry, I’m just covering the story,” I said.
Looking around the Food Sciences building, there did seem to be a clear hierarchy between the volunteer “players” like Janna wearing orange vests, and the clusters of green-vested safety officers and operation directors setting up one of the largest “active shooter” response drills ever undertaken.
Operation Gallant Eagle, the name of the full-scale emergency exercise being executed, had an atmosphere of nervous excitement. Nearly 200 “players” comprised of students, faculty and staff volunteered to simulate an active shooter situation, allowing UC Davis police to evaluate their ability to respond effectively to one of the most disturbing scenarios imaginable – that a shooter could walk into any campus building and open fire on students and faculty.
“It’s a nightmare to think about, something that literally keeps me up at night, when I imagine how a situation like this could actually play out,” says one safety officer from San Jose City College.
The drill was organized in response to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, one of the most notorious campus shootings, which went on for hours before the shooters ended their killing spree.
Until that day, police protocol was to secure the perimeter and wait until a SWAT team arrived to neutralize the shooter. This could take up to three hours in some cases, said UC Davis Police Lt. Matt Carmichael.
Carmichael and Chief Annette Spicuzza have given their officers special training in actively moving to neutralize a threat on campus. Operation Gallant Eagle was designed to put the practice to the test.
Players use “simunition” guns, which use wax training rounds with small paint markers that leave dye on clothing. This gun will be used in the second floor of the Food Sciences building – a “hot zone” where participants will be armored in protective head gear, neck shields, and the always-important groin protectors, to soften the impact of the simunition rounds.
Along with blank rounds, fake explosions, and smoke machines, it’s one of the many tools being used to make the experience as real as possible.
In the “warm zone,” the rounds fired will be limited to blanks, but the careful attention to realism is still on display. By now, the last few preparations are being made before the two shooters are given their guns and told to begin their “killing spree.”
I watch with a touch of amusement as a safety officer splashes copious amounts of fake blood and gore on the jeans of Lindsay Walker, a student volunteer who’s been “shot” in the leg and has to play the part of the escaping injured student.
“It’s so sticky,” Lindsay says, “but it tastes pretty good.”
The first shots are fired, and Operation Gallant Eagle is underway.
Blank rounds fired in classrooms and hallways resonate so loudly that people begin to cover their ears. It’s impossible not to flinch every time one goes off, and players begin to evacuate the building as they realize what’s happening. Professors and some students try to move injured participants to safety; some by helping them limp out the doors, others by literally dragging the unconscious ones by their hands and feet.
The officers finally arrive on the scene and the drill moves upstairs.
Chief Spicuzza is observing from the perimeter.
“It’s the biggest operation like this that I’m aware of,” Spicuzza says, “and I’m happy with how it’s turned out … Officers will come out of that drill and tell you, ‘you know, I kind of forgot that it was just an exercise,‘ and that’s really we’re looking for.”
The drill will continue for some time, as the fire department and medical response teams treat injuries and practice their triage skills. I turn in my green vest and walk back home, just another civilian once again reveling in the lack of danger we all hope to experience every day.
BRIAN GERSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.