GFFR, GFPD, CCSO train to respond to active shooter, mass casualty events

For years, local law enforcement has trained on active shooter situation, but for the first time, they trained last week with Great Falls Fire Rescue on getting medical attention to victims quickly and safely.

Assistant GFFR Chief Jeremy Jones contacted the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office and Great Falls Police Department to organize the training and develop a response plan so the agencies can more effectively work together in a mass casualty situation.

Jones said that a rescue task force model has been developed nationwide and involves teaming law enforcement with firefighters/medics to get to victims quicker and treat them onsite or move them as quickly as possible to an operating room, in the case of gunshot victims. The model allows the rescue task force teams to into an active shooter scene before it’s completely secured, in what responders call the “warm zone.”

Benefis staff train for mass casualty incidents

GFFR GFPD CCSO active shooter training

Photo courtesy Shane Klippenes, Great Falls Fire Rescue

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and Sgt. Jason Boyd of CCSO said that Jones was the major driver in creating last week’s training event, which was the first time all three agencies had trained together.

Slaughter said Jones pushed it because he felt that even though firefighters aren’t trained or designed to go in to active shooter situations, it’s their job to do everything possible to be prepared to respond to an emergency event in the community.

“We’ve never all three trained together,” Jones said. “We have never implemented a program like this. Now, if we ever face an event like this, we’ll have a plan in place.”

The concept of the rescue task force came from the Arlington County, Va. Fire Department, according to GFFR. The Arlington fire department leaders looked at active shooter events nationwide and created a model enabling responders to provide emergency medical intervention faster and within the Incident Command System construct, according to GFFR.

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“If you don’t prepare, when it happens, you’re not going to do things right that you could have done right,” CCSO’s Boyd said.

“A lot of times, we don’t know what we’re going in to. If we follow this model, firefighters can be right behind us taking care of patients,” Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said.

Over the course of the week, most of GFFR’s firefighters, about 50 city cops and 98 percent of sworn officers at CCSO had participated, officials said.

“If we’re ever faced with this event, will our response be perfect? No. Will we be able to get it done, absolutely,” Jones told the group after their last round of training Friday afternoon.

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On Friday, the agencies ran through techniques for checking for gunshot wounds, carrying victims and moving into buildings in teams, among other skills, at GFFR’s training center.

For the afternoon, they moved to the Salvation Army building on 17th Avenue South, just off 9th Street South. The scenario was that the building was Scheels and an active shooter left multiple victims before police chased him and he barricaded himself in Harbor Freight.

The agencies rehearsed what they’d do to respond to Scheels to find and treat victims.

In the scenario, the information was that the shooter had vacated Scheels, but law enforcement didn’t know if there were other hostile players left in the building so the first step was sending in a search team of law enforcement officers to clear the building and relay back information on the location and condition of victims.

During the scenario, GFPD’s Capt. John Schaffer told teams that law enforcement’s goal was to escort firefighters in to manage and care for victims.


Photo by Shane Klippenes, Great Falls Fire Rescue

During the training, officials reminded teams to think of lessons learned from previous mass shootings, particularly creating areas of access when they’re staging. In some previous shootings, ambulances couldn’t get close to the scene to move victims because responders had crammed their emergency vehicles in together.

Lt. Brian Black of GFPD said if everyone goes to Harbor Freight in the scenario, “who’s going to take care of these people,” he said of the victims.

Firefighters are willing to go in, Black told teams as they played out the exercise, but they can’t go in until law enforcement goes with them.

Boyd, of CCSO, told teams to work together so they don’t lose their medics.

Depending on the situation, GFFR would send in EMTs, paramedics or a mix of both, Jones said.

Firefighters train for mayday situations

If casualty collection points are staged inside a building, they’d likely send paramedics in, but if they were bringing patients to staging points outside the building, they’d likely stage the paramedics at that spot, he said.

During the training, they included a number of factors inside the building, from multiple victims together in areas that were tricky to defend or in one repetition, a firefighter played a gunshot victim who was also armed claiming to have shot the shooter but was belligerent.


Photo by Shane Klippenes, Great Falls Fire Rescue

The training was designed to prepare responders for a mass casualty situation, but also to improve their communication and strategies in high stress events and to improve understanding of how law enforcement and fire/medical operate in such a situation.

Jones said this type of training and the rescue task force model would be helpful should a situation arise like their scenario. Say there was a shooting in Scheels, he said, and there’s 20 gunshot victims in the store. Without a way to get medical teams in, those victims could bleed out.

So firefighters trained to go in under guard and stop the bleed, Jones said.

Law enforcement have been training for this type of situation since Columbine, he said, and firefighters train daily, but they operate differently.

Jones said they have developed a mass casualty plan, in partnership with multiple agencies including health care centers.

In the event of a mass casualty situation, there aren’t enough transport resources in Cascade County, so under their plan, they’d start bringing in resources from surrounding jurisdictions and plug in Mercy Flight, Benefis Health System, Great Falls Clinic and Alluvion to start moving patients more efficiently.

That could mean moving ambulatory patients with minor injuries to Alluvion and reserve the trauma centers like the Benefis and GF Clinic emergency rooms for critical patients, he said. They’ve built trip points into the plan on the front end that when hit would prompt various agencies to go into disaster mode and start calling in additional staff and resources, Jones said.

The scenario and training was designed to prepare responders for a mass casualty situation, but also to improve their communication and strategies in high stress events and to improve understanding of how law enforcement and fire/medical operate in such situations.

GFPD’s Capt. John Schaffer said, “we think differently than firefighters do.”

Part of the training, he said, is understanding each other and melding our skills.

The training scenario was an active shooter, but the training could be used in a number of mass casualty situations, he said, since it makes them focus on “all of the little things that you never think about so we’re better prepared.”

Looking at the shootings in San Bernardino, Parkland, Sandy Hook, all the way back to Columbine, Schaffer said, “we’ve learned lessons from all of those.”

The lucky thing so far in Great Falls, he said, was that somebody saw or heard something and reported it to police who were able to prevent incidents from happening. He encouraged the public to always alert law enforcement when something seems off so they can investigate and ideally, prevent tragedies from happening.