Screams and rapid gunfire cut through the smoke hanging heavy in the hallways as the strobe lights cast eerie shadows across the curved walls of Frontier Elementary School, during a simulated attack to train police officers on Thursday.
The threat? A gunman on the loose in the school. Officers in tactical gear stormed the hallways in groups, moving quickly to find the suspect and stop the barrage of gunfire.
This was no wait-and-see approach. Officers carefully devised an entry plan and moved carefully through the school.
The men and women moved fast, their weapons drawn, knowing every second could mean another life.
The day-long active shooter training drills put on by the Department of Public Safety Wednesday and Thursday involved 20 officers from the Payson Police Department, Gila County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Public Safety and the Globe-Miami area. For most, it was their first time training in such realistic settings.
Payson Police Det. Matt Van Camp, a veteran of the local special response team, said officers take the training very seriously, knowing they may face tragedy one day.
DPS trainer and detective Alan Haywood said they throw everything at the officers. “We are going to use lights, smoke machines and actual actors yelling, screaming and pulling at them to show them what they might encounter in a situation, maybe at the highest level,” he said.
Such trainings take place across the state more often these days, with officers focused on what to do if someone opens fire at a school, shopping mall or crowded location.
For DPS, training really ramped up after the Columbine school shooting, with SWAT-type groups training regularly. But patrol officers often have little tactical training.
Haywood said all officers must know what to do in an active shooting.
“We know these situations begin and end very quickly and we want to get in there quickly and stop the violence as soon as possible and the only way to do that is to have patrol officers working the areas trained, he said.
Payson Police Chief Don Engler agreed, saying the training also shows officers how to work with other agencies.
“The real benefit for us is it is a regional training and it incorporates all the other agencies,” he said. “And certainly this is one of those trainings you hope you never have to use, but if you do, you are going to get a multi-jurisdictional response.”
Haywood said the ultimate goal in these situations is stopping the violence quickly.
That can mean officers enter a building alone and “put violence on violence,” he said.
GCSO Sgt. Brian Havey said you don’t stop until the shooter is “out of the picture.”
“You need to get in there and stop the end of life,” Engler said.
Officers learn how to quickly assess the threat level of a situation and what action to take.
“We have to run toward that most people would run away from,” Haywood said.