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MSU Conducts Full-Scale Emergency Exercise

Training to respond to acts of violence is a basic function of emergency personnel across the country.  On Wednesday, dozens of first responders from the Lansing region gathered at Michigan State University to test their skills in a mass casualty drill. 

WKAR’s Kevin Lavery watched the drill unfold.

First off, let’s stress it again...the events Wednesday at Michigan State University were part of a simulation, not an actual emergency.  That’s the key information you must know before you listen to the rest of this story.

MSU officials had announced the exercise days ago, but did not reveal its exact location to make the event as realistic as possible.  Minutes after it began, MSU police public information officer Sergeant Florene McGlothian-Taylor held a briefing to inform the media.

“We received a call shortly before 9 a.m. indicating that there was a shooting at Conrad Hall,” McGlothian-Taylor said.  “We’ve also indicated, or received information that the shooter is -- there’s no longer a threat -- that the shooter has been shot.”

Taylor’s briefing revealed few other details,  and that was intentional. The drill had been in the planning stages since January, and protocol demanded that not even MSU spokespeople knew precisely what the scenario would be until the moment it happened.

Outside Conrad Hall, campus police were soon joined by emergency crews from Lansing, East Lansing and Meridian Township.  About two dozen students clad in bright orange jackets were calmly evacuated from the building.  Admittedly, following the action in detail was a challenge, as reporters were not permitted beyond a safety perimeter.

But by 9:50 a.m., as a driving rain starting pounding the streets, police and firefighters could be seen coming and going through the main doors of the building.  Medics brought victims – simulated victims, of course, out on stretchers.  Some were treated for minor injuries out of the back of a police SUV.

By 10 a.m., it was time for another press briefing.  The duty fell to MSU spokesman Kent Cassella, who reported four people were dead and four were injured.

Remember, this was a simulation.  There were no actual casualties.

An actor playing the part of a reporter asked Cassella about the accuracy of the numbers.  It was another twist added to the drill to convey a basic fact – that the early moments of every crisis are often filled with contradiction and confusion.

But Cassella was unwavered.

“I know numbers are always tough and this is a rapidly unfolding situation,” Cassella said.  “So please, if you’ve got some numbers out there you’re hearing somewhere else, we will make sure we are confirming the numbers with the police that are inside the scene.  So check your numbers against those numbers.”

Cassella also relayed that MSU had issued the all clear; the threat had been eliminated.  Now, the action shifted to a nearby building that had been established for the drill as a makeshift hospital.  There, police, fire and medical crews triaged the victims. 

The simulation began winding down around 11:30 a.m.  Police led a de-brief in a roomful of first responders from across the region.  Those who had volunteered to portray victims were there, too. 

Natisha Adams had been outfitted with a large fake wound on her left arm.  She recalled watching the mock gunman enter the auditorium where the simulation played out.

“It was very loud, very surprising, caught off guard even though we knew it was an exercise it was still the reality of hearing the gunshots and trying to get out as fast as possible, and then watching what the response was,” Adams explained.

Barbara Hamilton with the Lansing Emergency Management Office was one of the controllers of the event.  She noted there were some problems with physical communication.

“It needs better radios and communication, getting everybody to talk to each other, and that’s it kind of broke down,” Hamilton said.  “But each entity unto themselves worked very well, they know what they’re supposed to do, it’s just getting the communication on this is coming in, this is what you’ve got to do, where this is supposed to go.”

MSU officials acknowledged their drill needed some fine tuning, though they believed it went well overall.

“No one wants to have to deal with a situation of this nature,” said Sgt. Florene McGlothian-Taylor.  “And I think that’s one of the reasons why we practice and we prepare, so that if something of this nature does happen, we’re able to handle the situation appropriately and respond rapidly.”

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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