HILLSBOROUGH: Pair of active shooter drills simulate armed assault, hostages in municipal building

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Hillsborough Police take part in active shooter training at the municipal building. An officer acting as a shooter takes a hostage.

By Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
A thin veil of smoke and the smell of gunpowder hung in the air at the Peter J. Biondi Municipal Building, as screeching fire alarms and shotgun blasts demanded attention from anyone holed up in their offices.
Help was still minutes away as two armed men scoured the building for potential victims.
And even though they were firing blanks and being escorted by police training personnel, observers of the two active shooter drills on Friday, Oct. 21, admitted this scenario can play out at any time.
“Unfortunately in today’s climate, we have a lot more active shootings going on,” Officer Ted Lewis, of the Hillsborough Police Department, said. “We have to be prepared.”
For more than three hours that Friday morning, municipal employees participated in the active shooter drills, which involved members of the township’s police and fire departments, as well as the Office of Emergency Management and local EMS.
Additional law enforcement and first responders from the county and neighboring towns like Manville and Montgomery, were also on hand to eliminate any “threats,” treat the “wounded” and evacuate any employees left inside the building.
Though everyone in the building knew the active shooter drills were going to be part of their workday, officials said details surrounding them were kept secret. Likewise, responding law enforcement and emergency personnel were kept in the dark about what they would find once they entered the building.
In the first scenario, two armed gunmen roamed the municipal building and took Business Administrator Anthony Ferrera hostage.
Having had a gun to his back for most of that scenario, Mr. Ferrera said the simulation was a little harrowing.
“As much as it was a drill, you still feel like you’re a part of it, so you’re still concerned about the employees, as well as yourself,” he said.
In order to add a wrinkle to the scenario, instructors had the hostage takers guide Mr. Ferrera around the building in an effort to try to get employees to open the doors to their offices and hiding places.
“I didn’t want (our employees) to open the door,” Mr. Ferrera said. “I almost felt like I was putting my employees in harm’s way, but through the training we’ve been doing over the past few years, it was very encouraging that not one person opened the door.”
Officer Lewis, who has served with the Hillsborough Police Department for the last 21 years and has been a member of the training division for 15 years, said the drills were the natural extension of employee training that goes back to 2014.
“One of the biggest things that we wanted to test was the employees’ reactions to each situation,” he said. “They all did exactly what they were supposed to do, which was great to see.”
Eventually, both shooters were “taken down” by responding police and the building was cleared.
For the second scenario, officials simulated an explosion within the building’s multi-purpose room as two gunmen once again sought out victims and took hostages.
With simulated smoke beginning to bellow out of the multi-purpose room, which is regularly used for meetings and social gatherings, Mr. Ferrera said the threat of fire only compounded the already difficult situation of trying to survive an active shooter scenario.
“We’re taught that when fire alarms are going off, you should run out of the building, but they knew that was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “The training really helped and the employees made the right decision to stay put and wait for help.”
Over the course of the second scenario, police had killed one shooter while the second had barricaded himself in the finance department with a hostage.
In both scenarios, police cautiously entered the building and worked to create “warm zones” where fire and EMS could work with relative safety. Only once those zones were created could they do things like extinguishing fires or caring for the wounded.
“The old line of thinking back before Columbine was that the police would secure everything until the SWAT team gets here,” Chief Powell said. “In the meantime, there were two guys inside popping off students. That was a wake up call for law enforcement.”
Friday’s drills were the second ones to be held at the municipal building since 2014. In that particular scenario, Chief Powell said they arranged the drills as if officers were already at police headquarters, located inside the municipal building.
This year, however, the drill was coordinated in a way to simulate there being a much smaller police force at the building with little chance for the building’s inhabitants to easily exit the building.
“Last time, we had the guys flood out of headquarters and deal with that, so it was a lot quicker,” Chief Powell said. “This time, we tried to plan it out like we weren’t coming from across the hall and we had to get our guys off the road to deal with this.”
Such a scenario is plausible, he said, since community events or outside incidents regularly draw law enforcement officials from headquarters. Earlier this month, “almost no one” was present in headquarters during the Blue Mass that was held at the Diocese of Metuchen, he said.
The result, would be a longer response time and a less certain understanding of the situation within the building.
After the shooting deaths of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas, Chief Powell said these drills have become even more important to law enforcement.
“Even before those incidents, people were trained from the time they get into the academy to never be complacent and to always watch their back,” Chief Powell said. “Now with what’s happened, you do start thinking about it more, but you can’t let it stop you from doing your job.”
Chief Powell said the police department is currently considering acquiring bulletproof vests that are more suited for “higher threat level” engagements, such as those that involve military-style rifles.
“The vests we currently use don’t do anything for a rifle, so there are other kinds of vests we’re thinking about getting to keep in the cars,” Chief Powell said.
Something that the drills do not take into account, Officer Lewis said, are the number of civilians who would also be inside the building during such an attack. All of the municipality’s departments, as well as the senior center and the library, are all under one roof.
“On a regular day, we have a lot of people in the municipal building,” he said.
Despite the unique layout of the township’s municipal building, Officer Lewis said responding officers were able to assess the situation quickly.
Once both drills were done, officials deemed the exercises as successful attempts at training nearly all aspects of a response, as well as identifying any key issues for safely helping the public.
“Obviously, there’s always room for improvement, and that’s why we do this training,” he said. “Now we can look at something and say ’this went well, but how can we make it better?’ ”
Once the drills were done, Officer Lewis said some employees complained of either spotty or completely unavailable cell phone coverage within the building hindering their attempts to reach 911.
“We understand the limitations are possibly cell phone use and this was a great lesson for our employees to know what limitations there are for outside communications,” Officer Lewis said.
The use of cell phones during an active shooter situation also lead to some safety concerns, Mr. Ferrera said, as people were using a group chat to keep up to date on where people were and what was happening.
“The shooter could have taken my cell phone and then they would have been able to go and find my employees,” he said.
Despite those limitations, Officer Lewis said he was proud of how everyone involved handled themselves and the way outside agencies responded to a dire, albeit simulated, situation.
“Residents should know that they should be very pleased and feel safe that they have the law enforcement, the fire, rescue squad and communications and all the staff that’s here,” he said. “They should know that if an unfortunate situation like this should occur, that we have trained for that. They should feel safe in this environment.”