KATHY KUNKEL/TIMES NEWS Tamaqua Police Officers Matt Bynon (left) and Tom Rodgers search for an armed gunman seen near the east side of the gym during a drill at the Tamaqua Elementary School on Monday. Searching the western side of the gym, in the background, are Cpl. Henry Woods and Patrolman Michael Hobbs.
Even though it was a drill, the words " shots fired in the Tamaqua Senior High School" caused the adrenaline levels of the drill participants to soar into overdrive. Those eight words were uttered Monday morning as the Tamaqua Police Department and officials of the Tamaqua Area School District ran a series of drills designed to prepare, as much as possible, for such a scenario.
The very idea of an armed intruder in a building filled with students strikes terror in the hearts and minds of school officials, law enforcement personnel and parents throughout the world. Recent events have proven even small towns are not exempt from such violence. That's why Tamaqua police and school officials used the Columbus Day holiday, a teacher in-service day, to run several drills at the senior high school and Tamaqua Elementary School. School administrators acted as the "bad guys," while several teachers and students volunteered to be the "victims." The middle and senior high school teaching staff observed the activities at the senior high, while teachers from the district's three elementary schools viewed the action at the Tamaqua Elementary School.
Tamaqua Police Sgt. Richard Weaver, the department's training officer, and Assistant School Superintendent Ray Kinder designed the sessions to include a variety of scenarios, each involving at least one armed gunman. While participants had a basic idea as to what was to come, the "perps" improvised with a few unexpected twists and turns designed to keep everyone off balance.
The use of dummy rounds, by both officers and the armed suspects, added to the noise, confusion and realism. Student volunteers were covered in fake blood and could have won Academy Awards for their portrayals. Those students included: Dane DeWire, Eric Fiorilla, Collin Fox, Deanna Hill, Christian Gardiner and Emily Zancofsky at the senior high; and Dylan and Lee Woods at the elementary school. Several school staff members were visibly shaken by the day's events.
Sgt. Weaver served in an advisory/observer role for the department's full time officers who took part in the action. Those officers included: Cpl. Dwayne Hacker, Cpl. Henry Woods, and Patrolmen Anthony Stanell, Michael Hobbs, Thomas Rodgers, Mattew Bynon and Karl Harig. The position of team captain was rotated between the officers so each would have the opportunity to experience being the officer in charge.
Each drill was followed by an after-action discussion and a question and answer period. Teachers were looking for answers concerning specific scenarios and responses. Instead, Sgt. Weaver explained "Common sense is the best approach. There is no right or wrong response. Become familiar with the district's standard operating procedure. If an emergency situation arises, remember that communication is key. Without compromising yourself or your students, call 9-1-1 and provide us with as much information as you can." Assistant Superintendent Kinder stressed "The students and their safety are our primary concern. If the unthinkable were to happen, it is our job, each and every one of us, to put our students safety first."
The importance of communication was also stressed to the police officers. "We have to let each other know where we are, where we are going next, the suspect's actions, every move we make, what we see and hear going on around us. That will help protect the victims and the officers," offered Weaver. "Drills like this are just a tool, a way to familiarize ourselves with the grounds, the buildings and even our own responses. The team needs to move like a river, flowing continuously."
By the final scenario at the high school, officers "flowed" so well, they threw in a few improvisions of their own.