Active shooter drill calls regional law enforcement to Camp Foster
The scene was suspiciously quiet beyond the police check point. Birds were chirping and breezes were blowing across Camp Foster YMCA near East Lake Okoboji, but a tragic scenario was playing out on the campground — a training scenario, thankfully.
Dickinson County Emergency Management orchestrated a full mock-up of an active shooter situation on the 190-plus acre campground. Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator said the exercise will help emergency personnel be better prepared should such a need ever arise in the Lakes Area.
Recent active shooter situations in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, made nationwide headlines earlier this month. Ehret said the local training exercise had been in the works for more than a year, discussing procedures and meeting with authorities before culminating in a full-scale exercise.
"The recent events kind of shed a new light on it and bring it to the forefront," Ehret said. "It makes everybody think about them again. In that regard, it was timely, but we hope we never have to put this into practice in the real world."
Camp Foster Executive Director Josh Carr said he had put forward the idea of using the campground for such a training exercise to not only build up his own staff's readiness, but also strengthen ties with emergency responders.
"If they know how to get around in our facility, the better they'll be if the time comes," Carr said.
Ehret's scenario called for two shooters to make their way toward the camp's dining hall, where some victims would be taken hostage, while others scattered in panic. The scenario was kept loose in order for the response to play out naturally, Ehret said. Authorities got their first 911 call at 2:14 p.m. Wednesday.
"Report of an active shooter at Camp Foster — subject shot in leg," the radio operator said, specifying the call was only a drill.
It would be the first of many calls the Dickinson County Communication Center would field that afternoon. Ehret had instructed a number of the volunteers to call 911 — again specifying they were part of Wednesday's drill — after the scenario began. Authorities hoped to flood the comm center operators with calls and test their efficiency. Other volunteers were instructed to run and hide in mock panic, some were instructed to be uncontrollably hysterical and still others volunteered to play the part of wounded victims.
Steve "Hoppy" Hopkins had created faux wounds for a handful of volunteers earlier that afternoon. Hopkins said he has been applying the specialized makeup — called moulage — as part of various exercises for more than 30 years.
"I try to make it look as realistic as I can," he said. "We don't get overzealous by any means, but we're going to keep it as close as we can to realistic."
Indeed, Hopkins slipped a piece of an Alka-Seltzer tablet inside a chest wound he applied to Santiago Cruz, a Camp Foster staff member visiting from Columbia. The scenario assigned to Cruz called for a bullet to have penetrated his lung, and Hopkins said the bubbles produced by the tablet would clue responding paramedics in on that fact.
Hopkins said more complex moulage like Cruz's generally takes between 5 and 10 minutes to prepare, while simpler wounds — like Logan Nicoson's leg injury — take less time. Nicoson is a student from Armstrong and is part of Iowa Lakes Community College's criminal justice program. He said he's volunteered as a victim during similar training elsewhere in the region.
"It's a cool opportunity to help out, and it's a good learning experience for me," he said.
Nicoson would feign support on a Dickinson County Sheriff's Deputy later that afternoons, as he limped his way toward the county's mobile command unit near the campground's main entrance. Further inside the camp, authorities shouted to a group of volunteers who were huddled in a nearby cabin. The group ran across an open area toward a waiting ambulance as law enforcement kept a watchful eye. Some of the day's volunteers were rushed to Lakes Regional Healthcare for treatment of their simulated wounds. Chris Ingraham, LRH director of emergency and outpatient services, said the local emergency room was also put to the test as hospital staff was suddenly tasked with triage, tests and other procedures.
Meanwhile, authorities on the campground had begun their work securing the dining hall and searching the outlying cabins — not knowing how many attackers were included in Ehret's scenario.
"They got in there and got to them relatively quickly, which is good," Ehret said. "With that kind of a situation, obviously you want to find the shooter and get them as soon as you can. The longer they're in there, the more time and more opportunity they have to injure or kill people."
Groups of law enforcement personnel worked their way through the cabins and other buildings near the dining hall. A team of officers in heavy gear seemed to faded in and out of view as they wove their way through the wooded areas and underbrush. Those observing the exercise wore reflective vests to designate themselves as "out of play" and took notes as the search continued.
"Movement in the window," a voice echoed through the campground.
Nearby police officers and sheriff's deputies converged on one of the nearby cabins — each named for a native tribe.
"Whoever is in the Sioux cabin, come out with your hands up," the officer shouted.
A group of mock victims exited the cabin, and police escorted them away for interviewing. A similar scene played out just a few minutes later near the Mohican cabin, as two officers held back to search the Comanche cabin. Silhouettes in tactical gear could also be seen through the tinted windows of the campground's Elmer J. Sheneberger Character Center. The regional High risk Entry Arrest Team — or HEAT — was making their way through that particular building.
The all clear was sounded approximately 86 minutes after the initial 911 call was received.
Ultimately, the exercise brought in all five police departments in Dickinson County, the Dickinson County Sheriff's Office, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Spirit Lake Fire Department, Arnolds Park/Okoboji Fire and Rescue, Spirit Lake First Responders, Lakes Regional Ambulance, Lake Park Ambulance and the HEAT Team. Vehicles from the Spencer Police Department and four Minnesota agencies were also observed at the campground. Ehret estimated close to 100 people took part in the simulation.
"It's always a challenge," Ehret said afterward. "You've got a lot of different agencies, a lot of different people and a lot of moving parts. Trying to track it all and properly communicate it to everybody is always a challenge, and it's something we try to improve on all the time."
He said the exercise will likely help identify any potential breakdowns in communication or other areas in need of improvement before a real emergency potentially arises.
"The biggest thing with these exercises is, if you're going to make a mistake, if you're going to screw up, this is the time to do it," Ehret said. "Do it now, learn from it and then — God forbid — if it ever happens, hopefully we'll be able to respond better and even more efficiently."