The scene around and inside Central Cambria High School was high energy Friday with urgency in the air – accentuated by the pungent smell of sulfur from blank bullets.
Police, emergency responders and school staff were operating at full alert.
Two gunmen carrying multiple weapons had breached the security system and taken out high school Principal Kim McDermott and Greg Shaffer, director of maintenance.
But it was only practice, a drill carried out with the hope that the experience and knowledge gained will never be needed in real life.
The “active shooter” drill at Central Cambria marked the first time a public school in the region opened its doors to such a massive, intense exercise.
It is an effort that helps school district officials, staff and emergency responders see what they are doing wrong and fine-tune their skills, said Ron Springer, Cambria County’s emergency management director.
“It gives a number of us a good opportunity to train together and exercise the plans we already have in place,” Springer said.
Preparations at the school started months ago, said district Superintendent Vincent DeLeo, who advanced the idea for the exercise.
“It went good, it went good,” said DeLeo following the unfolding of two armed people entering the school.
They fired at random and led the police around the single-story school.
A scenario and script for the event was developed, earmarking who and how many students and adults would be shot.
While the shooters didn’t swing into action until nearly noon, participants gathered at 9 a.m. to begin training.
Discussions on possible scenarios and how to react were held during much of the morning.
Friday was an in-service day, with students out of the classroom. That provided the opportunity to turn the school over to dozens of responders trained for such crises and those learning how to react.
But despite no classes, an estimated 80 high school students, after getting parential permission, showed up and took part in the drill, an element that added realism to the drill, Springer said.
“It’s a funny feeling hearing those gunshots inside a school,” he said.
Students were staged in the cafeteria and in classrooms throughout the building. As soon as the gunshots started, the classrooms went into lockdown
After the bad guys were captured, police and other responders from as far south as Johns-town, many municipal departments, state police and the Cambria County Sheriff’s Department walked through the building, clearing all rooms.
The day concluded with an analysis of how the event went and what, if anything, could have been handled differently.
Ebensburg police Chief Terry Wyland said what was learned in the drill is invaluable.
Not only does it help in responding to intensive situations, but it’s good to get to become better acquainted with other police and responders, Wyland said.
The Central Cambria exercise was reminiscent of one conducted last year at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, when a man armed with a combat rifle ran into Academic Hall and opened fire.
More than a decade ago, the Greater Johnstown School District allowed the use of its facilities for an incident similar to the one in Columbine, Colo., and last year the Northern Cambria School District held a simulated bus hijacking incident.
“A couple of other school districts have indicated interest in doing something like this (active shooter),” Springer said.
The best part of the Central Cambria drill, Springer said, was that it was as realistic as practice can be.
“It’s realistic, and the more realistic we can make it, the more we get out of it,” he said.
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