SURGOINSVILLE — Tuesday’s active shooter drill at Surgoinsville Middle School was so tough that calling it a worst case scenario wouldn’t do it justice.
Hawkins County deputies and rescue personnel faced multiple gun-wielding bad guys, an ambush, exploding booby traps, a dozen civilian casualties and a hostage situation in the basement involving a pregnant woman.
Adding to the confusion, the fire alarm was blaring, all the school doors were locked, and none of the initial responders had a key.
Deputies were taking fire, trying to get the doors open, and once they got in, they chased down one bad guy in the pitch black “Little Theater,” telling bleeding children on the floor at their feet, “We’ll be back for you.”
The event was the second annual active shooter drill at a school involving the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office working with every emergency response agency in the county to deal with the bad guys, the injured and, unfortunately, the dead.
The three bad guys killed two victims before police arrived.
A surprise for the HCSO
Only a handful of people including Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell knew an active shooter drill at SMS was taking place Tuesday morning.
Approximately 50 victims were scattered throughout the school, including a dozen who were made up with prosthetic gunshot wounds and fake blood.
Murrell began the drill by firing two gunshots in the principal’s office, after which SMS Principal Rodney Roberson announced on the intercom, “Lockdown Red!”
The only information police received from Central Dispatch before they arrived (aside from the fact that it was a drill) was there’s an active shooter at SMS and gunshot victims are “laying in the hallway in front of the office.”
“The call-outs go just as if it was the real thing,” Murrell said. “We do call-outs to agencies in other counties just to see what they can send if it was real.”
Murrell said the goal of Tuesday’s exercise was training emergency responders and identifying areas that need improvement so they can improve their plan.
The bad guys didn’t make it easy
A bad guy hiding in an empty school bus on the far east end of the parking lot wounded the first deputy on the scene, but the officer was able to report the sniper’s location to Central Dispatch.
Officers arriving afterward took out the bad guy at the bus, but they couldn’t get into the school at first because the doors were locked.
Once they found keys to get the doors open, deputies flood in. They chased one bad guy down the hallways and through the dark Little Theater. The bad guy managed to toss a pipe bomb at three deputies, causing them to scatter for cover before that bad guy was neutralized.
A third bad guy took hostages in the basement, where the HCSO negotiated with him for a lengthy period of time before he surrendered, releasing his hostages unharmed.
An excellent turnout for the HCSO
The HCSO knew the active shooter drill was coming sometime before the beginning of the school year, but not when or where. Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said he was very proud that 37 of his officers, many of whom were off-duty, responded to SMS Tuesday morning.
“That tells me, and should tell the schools and the public, that my officers are all in” Lawson said. “The scenario was very good and I could tell (organizers) put a lot of time and thought into it. A gentleman who was playing one of the bad guys has military training and experience, so he was able to critique the officers and their performance, and that was very valuable as well.”
Lawson added, “It’s a learning process, not only for my officers, but also for the first responders. The fire departments, EMS and everybody did a fantastic job, and it was great teamwork, and that’s what it’s all about. We managed to get all of the injured victims out to the medics and get the hostages out of the building safely.”
The HCSO, as well as municipal departments, routinely conduct active shooter drills at schools and other public locations throughout the year, but Tuesday’s drill was unique in that in brings all county agencies together for one event.
What’s the advantage of a countywide drill?
“We’ve done this so many times in different schools, it’s like automatic for my guys,” Lawson said. “This exercise prepares the different agencies to be ready to work together and make sure the sheriff’s office, EMA, EMS, the fire departments and 911 are all on the same page.”
Among the things Lawson would like to see improved were radio communications. Some officers couldn’t hear others on different floors.
They also wanted to work to get the fire alarm cut off faster.
“They threw a lot of curve balls at us today, and the officers did a fantastic job,” Lawson said. “It was an excellent learning tool, not only for my officers, but for all agencies combined to work together. It’s a team concept. The better you get because the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, and eventually you just rely on your training. That makes it safer for the students, the faculty and everybody.”