Standing in a classroom at the Jewish Community Center Thursday night, Melissa Hiller said she could hear the screams in the hallway and sounds of a barricade being built in the room next door.
“It was really scary to feel an assailant coming for me,” said Hiller, the director of the American Jewish Museum at the JCC. “I had no idea what to do with myself.”
The first shots rang out before 10 p.m. The scene was cleared and deemed safe in 45 minutes. The shooter was only active for six minutes.
“Most active shooter situations are over in a matter of minutes,” said Bradley Orsini, director of security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and one of the organizers of the active shooter drill that took place at the JCC Thursday night.
The drill was designed to allow 150 first responders — police officers, firefighters and paramedics — to practice the process for an active shooter situation.
Police officers entered first, locating and stopping the assailant. Then, firefighters and paramedics entered, assessing the injuries among the 70 volunteers who were playing victims.
This was the first training drill where first responders worked with volunteers from a community organization. It was also the first practice of the newly formed Rescue Task Force, a collaborative effort to more efficiently and effectively respond to active shooter situations among the three public safety departments.
“Until you put it into practice, a lot of times you don’t know what works and what doesn’t work,” said Sgt. Eric Kroll, the emergency management liaison for the police department, after the simulation. “It’s never going to come off textbook. That’s one of the things we teach.”
Police officers enter the scene first, in small contingents of three or four people as they work to “neutralize” the scene and stop the assailant. Traditionally, Kroll said, firefighters and paramedics don’t enter the scene until police are sure there is no longer a threat, what they call a “cold zone.”
In the old days, you used to wait for the SWAT team. You can’t do that anymore. It’s up to the first responders and the public. Part of what public safety is going to be is there are no borders.
But the newly formed Rescue Task Force has equipped them with the proper gear and training to enter when the scene is still a “warm zone,” when police have neutralized the immediate threat but are ensuring there isn’t an additional threat. The goal is to be able to help more victims immediately.
“In the old days, you used to wait for the SWAT team. You can’t do that anymore. It’s up to the first responders and the public,” Pittsburgh’s public safety director Wendell Hissrich said. “Part of what public safety is going to be is there are no borders.”
On Thursday night, volunteers fanned out throughout the JCC — some moving to classrooms, some staking out on the stairs and some passing the time on an elliptical in the gym downstairs.
The shooter moved quickly through the building, using blanks to claim “victims” in the downstairs lobby, in the hallways and in a lounge room on the second floor. Police found him in the classroom with Hiller and told him to drop his weapon.
He threatened to kill her. They began firing. He collapsed.
Paramedics and firefighters entered shortly after, assessing each victim’s “injuries” — addressing some on the spot and transporting others to a holding room of sorts. They left the “deceased” victims until the end.
Although this was the first active shooter drill that utilized community volunteers, public safety officials held 54 different security trainings and trained more than 2,000 people in the Jewish community in 2017. They focused on skills such as hide, run, fight — where people are encouraged to first hide, then run, and then fight if necessary — and stop the bleed — where civilians learn basic medical knowledge to be able to temporarily treat injuries.
Jason Kunzman, chief program officer for the JCC, said the volunteers, many of them members of the JCC staff, would use their experience to help prepare the rest of the staff in the event of an emergency.
“Unfortunately, these are times that we live in. When you have the word Jewish in front of your agency’s name, that brings a certain amount of risk,” he said.
Dan Gilman, chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, agreed, adding that the increased threats at Jewish Community Centers around the country last year illustrated even more how critical it is to be prepared.
“Every level of government is here, every department of public safety is here because we all recognize the need to be prepared,” he said. “We’ve learned, unfortunately, for several decades now that there is no safe space.”
Officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation filmed the entire scenario to create a video that will be used in future trainings for first responders and community organizations.
Now, Orsini said, the public safety department will review the events of Thursday night and feedback from participants in a series of action meetings and determine what went right, what went wrong and what could be done differently. Thursday night’s training will be a “framework” for other Jewish community organizations to use in the future, he said. PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.