FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead area has not been victim to a mass shooting, but local schools, businesses and emergency responders have plans in place and often conduct exercises so they will be prepared in case one does.
The weekend shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have brought discussion on gun violence back to the forefront. Many are questioning what causes mass shootings, how to prevent them and what individuals would do if confronted with an active shooter.
Local emergency responders, law enforcement, hospitals and schools have been training for years, including with Cass-Clay Unified School Response, a consortium that serves about 38,000 students and 6,000 staff members, said Heather Leas, the group’s co-director and spokeswoman for West Fargo Public Schools.
“We’ve been talking about what does it look like, feel like, sound like in order for staff and students to respond to a human threat,” she said, adding the agencies involved train for bomb threats, tornadoes and fires.
The consortium was formed by Lowell Wolfe, a former Fargo Public Schools staff member, in 2006 in response to the 2005 Red Lake (Minn.) Senior High School shooting, about 30 miles north of Bemidji.
Leas said her school district is required by the state to conduct 10 drills a year for emergency events, including active shooters.
Cass County Sheriff’s Sgt. Timothy Briggeman also is a co-director, and the Sheriff’s Office has used Unified School Response to train local branches of government, Leas said. County Emergency Management hosted a mass shooting exercise July 26 at Liberty Middle School in West Fargo, according to a news release.
The Fargo Police Department also participates in the consortium, along with conducting its own formal training, Deputy Chief Ross Renner said. Training is continuous in some shape or form, he said.
The police department declined to release specific details of its response plan, but it coordinates with various emergency services. It also provides training to businesses when requested, spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker said.
Response plans have changed over the years, but a significant change for law enforcement nationwide came after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, Renner said. Prior to that, officers would wait until they could negotiate with gunmen. After the shooting, officers started to train for immediate intervention, Renner said.
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“It’s evolved a little bit over time in how we respond,” he said.
Protocols also include how emergency crews should respond to victims, Renner said. There was a time when firefighters were not allowed to go into buildings not fully under law enforcement control.
That has changed as agencies realized victims have died while waiting for the shooter to be neutralized, Renner said.
“Stopping the shooter is important, obviously, as soon as you can,” he said. “But the care of the victims is also important.”
Taking in victims
Along with ongoing internal training, Sanford Health has put on an annual large-scale exercise to test its capabilities since 1990. That includes community volunteers and local agencies, said Heather Kroeker, emergency management specialist at the Fargo hospital.
Sanford participated in the mass shooting drill at Liberty Middle School last month.
Some communities will set up centers to handle mass casualties, but Sanford can treat a large number of victims as a Level 1 trauma center, said Dr. Mentor Ahmeti, who is closely involved in mass casualty procedures at the hospital.
“We would be able to absorb any type of community disaster, and we are prepared completely from an emergency standpoint,” he said.
Mass shootings are front and center, but Sanford takes any catastrophe seriously and treats it with the level of attention it deserves, said Sherem Syverson, hospital executive director for emergency and trauma. The last exercise involved 47 mock patients, he said.
“That’s a lot of patients, and we were able to … handle them,” he said. “I think (residents) should rest assured that we are practicing. We don’t take it lightly.”
The Cass-Clay consortium has inspired other school districts in North Dakota to form their own groups to respond to human threats, including Barnes, Burleigh and Morton counties, Leas said.
“When you go to national conferences and we talk about the collaboration that we have here between our first responder agencies and our schools, people just look at us like we are crazy because that is not the norm in most parts of the nation,” she said. “We are so lucky to have had it for so long and to have the opportunity to build those relationships.”
West Acres Mall and local churches also have been invited to participate, she said.
Chris Heaton, senior vice president of property management at the mall, said he is unsure how long the shopping center has trained for active shooters, but staff ramped up procedures after he came to the position six years ago. West Acres, which has a mallwide plan for its 100-plus stores, has conducted monthly lockdown drills for five years and trains with local entities.
“We prepare the best we can,” he said. “We train very frequently, and we always look at ways we can change our plan or improve our plan.”
West Acres has talked about conducting a full-scale active shooter exercise at the mall, but the logistics are unlikely, because stores and staff would have to do it when the mall is closed, Heaton said.
Management meets with tenants once a year for a mallwide security meeting — active shooter scenarios are discussed some years, Heaton said.
The mall posts safety tips for shoppers on its website. Heaton said people should be aware of their surroundings, know where the exits are located, report suspicious activity to security and follow the FBI guidance phrase if an active shooter situation arises:
- Run: Try to evacuate the premises safely.
- Hide: If running is not safe, find a hiding place, barricade yourself in, turn off the lights and silence your phone.
- Fight: As a last resort, find an object and work with others to incapacitate the shooter.
A link to the FBI's video on surviving and active shooter event can be found at bit.ly/2j1aOQ2. The video may be upsetting to some viewers.
It’s unfortunate that people have to prepare for mass shootings, Leas said, but it needs to be a part of education.
“It should never be OK that we have to tell teachers and students how to protect themselves in these types of events,” she said. “In the absence of information, things can be that much worse. When that worst day comes, we want our students and staff to be prepared.”
The mall has made significant investments in security in recent years. Heaton said he hopes staff never have to use its training, but the mall has elevated its response plan, adding the safety of everyone who goes to the mall is a top priority.
“I think the overarching kind of lesson to be learned here is, they can happen anywhere,” he said. “We continually do everything we can to make sure people are safe here.”