Wednesday, April 23, 2014 8:04 AM
Photo by Kayla Faria. Bowie Police officers respond to the explosion call during training exercises at the Bowie Town Center on June 30. The Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department bomb squad had set off a smoke bomb on the sidewalk outside a vacant store.
Published on: Wednesday, July 10, 2013
By Kayla Faria
The smoke bomb was real. The “Darth Vader-looking” helmets were real. The adrenaline was real. And the bodies on the pavement were real. But, the situation was fake.
The Bowie Police Department conducted full-scale training exercises June 30 at the Bowie Town Center. Police officers responded to a call after the county fire department bomb squad set off a smoke bomb on the sidewalk outside a vacant store.
“We’re hearing, ‘Shots fired.’ We’re hearing screams. We’re going right towards where we’re hearing the screams, where we’re hearing the shots fired,” Pfc. Mark Larson said.
Photo by Kayla Faria.The Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department bomb squad set off a smoke bomb on the sidewalk outside a vacant store at the Bowie Town Center for the city’s police training exercises June 30.
“We went in. We saw the explosion, saw the people on the ground. We were told to get into the building,” Pfc. Rich Vargas said.
Police officers equipped with blue simunition guns ran through the red smoke into the building, passing the Police Explorers role-playing possum — lying on the ground, pretending to be hurt or dead victims in an estimated 15-minute exercise.
“One of the hardest things to do is having to bypass people,” Larson said. “You have bodies out there and not checking them to make sure if they’re alive or whatever, but, at that point in time, that’s not our mission. Our mission is going in to take (out) the active shooter in the building.”
The call to the ambulance comes later, he added.
Larson, a longtime Prince George’s County police officer likened the scenario to a firefighter going into a burning building.
“Adrenaline is pumping,” Vargas said. “We were sweating. It’s a fluid situation. You don’t really know what is going on until you’re actually in it.”
“You’ve got to think on the fly (and) whatever happens — happens,” he added.
“It wakes them (the officers) up,” Bowie Police Chief John Nesky said of the drill. “Be prepared because you don’t know what’s going to happen during your shift (or) when you respond to your call.”
About five officers in a squad actively responded to the first call, but many more participated by doing logistic work. Police were blocking off entrances into the training exercise site marked off with caution tape and controlling access through multi-step checkpoints where officers had to exchange live weapons for simunition weapons, then wear a green armband to signify they were to stay in the training area.
“Theoretically, if we get a call like this, you’ve got the whole world coming,” Nesky said.
The county’s police department, sheriff’s department and communications partnered with AlliedBarton Security Services and Simon Properties to hold the exercises.
But the department limited the size to control the flow of officers and leave regular patrols unaffected, Nesky said. A different squad participated in the second exercise that did not showcase a smoke bomb, but featured police explorers calling for help.
It made the second exercise more “intense,” said Bowie State University criminal justice sophomore Arthur Dean.
“Some officers knew where to go, some didn’t,” said Dean, an ROTC member and three-year police explorer. “They were lost.”
The police explorer with ambitions to work in the canine unit pointed to vision difficulties as the sun faded later into the night. Masks were foggy, Dean said.
For Nesky, the practical training exercises are a way to evaluate cover, movement and communication taught in classroom instruction.
“It really makes it realistic, and that’s the only way that you’re going to know if you’re training has stuck,” he said.
“Scenario-based training is the best,” Larson said. “You don’t have a lot of time to think, it’s just natural reaction to training.”
Bowie Police holds at least two active shooter trainings each year, but the exercises are usually conducted in the shoot house of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. This exercise marked the first time the town center served as the backdrop. Nesky called the location ideal, convenient and “easy to block off.”
Officers participating in the drill had to make alignment adjustments — with officers in different positions — based on the vacant building’s layout, size and number of doors. It was part of the tactical component in the “wide-open” exercise.
“We’re interchangeable parts the whole way,” Larson said in describing the adjustments.
It wasn’t always that way. Before the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999, city police were only taught to hold the perimeter and wait for a SWAT team — rather than move in using small teams, Nesky said.
Now the department trains “everybody,” the chief said. “Every officer that’s in the street needs to know this.”
When asked to evaluate the police squads’ performances, Dean hesitated.
“They’re anxious to solve the problem and subdue with whatever is going on,” he said. “Even though some got a little tripped up, I think they did fairly well.”
It kind of went as it would in real life,” Dean added.