KNAPPA — Gunshots and screams rang out as three deputies from the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office made their way down a hallway at Hilda Lahti Elementary School past fleeing students and staff.
The officers held a tight formation, guns at the ready, and ordered the victims toward exits as they approached the sounds of gunfire coming from a classroom.
With Knappa School District out for winter break, the sheriff’s office took over campus Monday and Tuesday, training law enforcement from throughout the county and the Coast Guard how to respond to mass shootings. Simulations are the closest police agencies can get to prepare for shootings that play out with troubling frequency in the United States.
“It’s our commitment to being as prepared as possible for a variety of law enforcement situations that can arise,” said Lt. Matt Phillips, who helped oversee the training. “And also, as the largest law enforcement agency in the county, we have additional resources and personnel that some of the smaller agencies don’t have, so we think it’s important to open our trainings.”
The simulations included most patrol divisions, along with jail and courthouse staff at risk of ambush when they transfer inmates. Also taking part were members of Coast Guard maritime enforcement teams who board vessels and provide security on base.
Officers attended classroom lectures at Knappa High School on mass shooter response before heading to nearby Hilda Lahti and arming themselves with rifles and pistols loaded with simulation rounds. The officers practiced moving in formations and clearing hallways and rooms.
Craig Miller, a maritime enforcement specialist with the Coast Guard, spent Monday as a responder and Tuesday as a mass shooter stopped by responding officers.
Local agencies would respond to a mass shooter event on base along with the Coast Guard’s security teams.
“Communication is key, because it’s mass chaos,” Miller said.
Around 600 police from more than 30 agencies responded to the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, said Sgt. Jason Hoover during a classroom session. But responses in rural areas often depend on whoever is closest, regardless of agency, and officers don’t have time to wait for backup.
“You may be on your own, and chaos will reign,” Hoover said. “Your No. 1 job at that point is to reach the threat” to limit casualties.
Participants had to make life-or-death decisions to engage shooters surrounded by innocents.
“You rely on muscle memory,” Deputy Siscilee Gouge said of making such split-second decisions.
Stephanie Baldwin is a library assistant at Knappa, where her own children attend school. She played a victim fleeing and directing officers toward the shooter, while her husband, Nathen, a sheriff’s deputy, was one of the responding officers.
She spent the first scenario hunched in a corner, watching how it played out. Listening to the approaching gunshots and thinking of her co-workers and children in such a situation was gut-wrenching, she said.
“It made it too real,” she said. “I saw all the kids artwork on the walls as we worked, along with my own kids’, and it was painful to think of any of those children being harmed. But it did make me realize that in an event I need to have good information to pass on.”
Nathen Baldwin said it was especially difficult to pass his children’s classrooms and wife’s office, knowing they could be victims.
“I feel it was good for my wife to experience this training,” he said. “We as a family commonly discuss the possibility of these horrible events happening in our community, and what our options would be. I feel this training helped Stephanie better prepare for such incidents.”