Tacoma Mall Shooting: an exercise

The very first email that flashed up on my computer monitor came June 9 and said  “Tacoma Police Department needs volunteers for their Active Mall Shooter exercise to be held August 12.”  Anyone that was interested should send an email.  That sounded like a lot of fun, so I signed up.

In my mind I saw the entire exercise unfold, with me in an active, starring role.  Since the mall is closed for this after-hour exercise all stores are closed, but I’m one of 50 volunteer “shoppers” for this scenario.

A man wearing a black ski mask jumps out.  He starts firing randomly.  All of us volunteers dive for cover, some start to run towards the doors.  There is chaos, women are screaming, people are shouting.  Everyone is trying to see where the shots are coming from.

Since I’m in the starring role, I call 911.  I am whispering to the dispatcher what is going on, and all of the vital information the police need.  The police mobilize.  The swat team moves in.  The shooter grabs a group of us.  We’re being held hostage.  The police swat team frees the volunteers, take down the shooter and everyone gets home in an hour.  That’s what always happens on television.

July came and went.  No email.  Did they forget about me?  Did they decide I wasn’t suitable for their exercise?  Okay, I’ll give up the starring role.  Finally I receive details on time and directions for the exercise.  And for added impact, the day before the exercise volunteers were asked to let them know if they could not make it and an alternate would be called.

The day of the exercise I woke up with a severe head cold.  My head ached.  My throat hurt.  I ached all over.  I cannot go into work this sick so I go back to sleep.  I wake up at noon.  I’m still not feeling better.  Back to sleep.  I wake up at 5.  Am I well enough to go?  I still have to go into work to catch up so should I participate in the exercise?  WAIT A MINUTE!  It’s the POLICE department!  They have my name!  They know who I am!   I sent emails saying I’d be there!  I even re-verified the day before!  What if I don’t show!  They’ll be on the lookout for me!

I decided I should go.  I showered, put on my jeans and the required sneakers and a jacket.  By the time I got into my truck, I had a fever and was sweating.  This was not a good start.

Locating a parking space was a whole lot tougher than locating the sign-up tent.  There was a mass of uniforms:  Police, fire, K-9 handlers, the K-9 dogs, the SWAT team – impressive!  I managed to park illegally with the blessing of an officer participating in the exercise.  Walking towards the tent, lost in a sea of police… well I started to get nervous.  I could feel my heart beating faster.  I could feel myself panic.  Oh NO!

Now WAIT A MINUTE!  I am here as a volunteer!  I didn’t DO anything!  Calm down.  You are NOT in trouble.

I give my name at the sign up tent and am handed a yellow nylon “vest”.  The vest really wasn’t a vest.  It’s more like a flimsy football jersey with a white faded number, no sleeves, and if you were tall enough, it would be cropped right above your belly button.  I pulled my vest over my head.  It fit like a shirt on me.

There was a table loaded down with various snacks, donuts (of course), and a cooler with juices and water.  I silently cursed myself for being sick.  All these great treats and my head is throbbing.

Waiting for the start of the exercise, police and volunteers alike stayed with their respective groups.  I looked around at the different vests.  There were vests lettered ‘CONTROLLER’, ‘OBSERVER’, ‘SAFETY, ‘PIO’, so many I forgot half of the labels.  Who WERE these people?  In the middle of my musing we’re all called around the tent, volunteers and police alike.  We’re all given the briefing.  Everyone entering the mall must check their weapons; no guns, no knives, no ammunition; you are then scanned with a wand metal detector; and finally prior to stepping through the mall door, you are given a pat down.

It’s time to start.

Five volunteers were given a script to follow, five volunteers were having make up applied since they were gunshot victims and the gunman was a police officer.

The group of us walked through the food court–away from the ‘shooting’ area so we weren’t scanned or patted down–to the other side of the mall.  Then we waited.  The gunshot volunteers went into the mall, through the wanding and putdowns, and disappeared into the mall.  Those of us not specifically selected to be a victim stood outside of the mall doors.  WHAT??!!  Wait a minute!  I am supposed to be in there!  I have a starring role!

After the victims disappeared, the leaders of our group gave us our instructions.  When they give us the signal, we are to run out into the parking lot as fast as we can.  They will be standing at the back of the lot and we are to scream and run, like we are trying to get away.  The only thing we want to do is to get out of there.  WHAT??!! There obviously is some huge mistake!  I am supposed to be in the mall on the phone with 911!

With so many police officers going through checking their guns procedure and the victims being made up, there was quite a bit of waiting.  Two police officers were assigned to guard the door.  No unauthorized people could enter and if they were authorized, they received a pat down.

After watching this process numerous times, I couldn’t stand it any longer.  I just had to ask, “Why are you going through back-packs and doing pat downs?  They have all checked their guns and have been wanded.  What’s the story?”

“We have to make sure no live weapon gets into the mall.  The only weapons used inside are paint guns.  Although they look like real weapons, they aren’t and we can’t have someone make a mistake.  The volunteers don’t like it when we shoot them with real bullets”.

“OKAY EVERYONE.  PAY ATTENTION.  THEY ARE STARTING NOW.  WE WILL TELL YOU WHEN TO RUN” the leaders yelled out to us.  I looked up.  Police cars screamed into the lot and stopped in various positions.

“RUUUUNNN!”  I took off running as fast as I could.  I reached the leader at the end of the parking lot with a kink in my ankle and a throb in my knees.  I just might be a tad old for this.

Since we finished our part and provided the initial mass confusion for the police, we walked back up towards the mall doors.  We stood behind the first parking lot tire blocks, and watched as the police brought out the victims.

The volunteers with the scripts, began in earnest. Screaming, crying, yelling at the police to help the victims.  It was pandemonium.  The fire trucks raced in.  Medic trucks raced in.  The scripted volunteers were screaming, “Help them!  They’re dying.  Why won’t you help them?  Get someone here now!”

Our group stood watching the whole event unfold with each player doing their part in the play.  Triage was set up in the parking lot.  Backboards were brought out.  Gurneys were rolled out.  Overhead a plane circled the mall providing live video of the entire scene to the command center located in a trailer.  The bomb squad was trying to locate a bomb hidden in a car.  The swat team was making sure the mall was clear.  We even managed to see the shooter taken away in handcuffs.  It was fantastic.

Although I didn’t get the starring role in the exercise, it was a worthwhile experience and one that I absolutely would do again.

Miska, Senior Scene