Wayne first responders take part in massive-scale active shooter drill

Wayne police stand guard at the entrance of Wayne Hills High School while another member of the department tries to calm down a parent during a mock shooter drill at the school on Sunday morning. North Jersey – by Debra Winters

WAYNE – Shootings, an explosion, and innocent people injured at three of Wayne Township’s district schools, but thankfully it was only a drill. The main event took place at Wayne Hills High School.

The Wayne Police Department, working in conjunction with the Board of Education, hosted a multi-agency active shooter exercise on Sunday morning. The mock drill was funded by a $126,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security and it tested the abilities of over a dozen agencies based on the similar type events that have occurred across the nation.  

Other agencies involved include the Wayne Memorial First Aid Squad, the Wayne Fire Department, St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, the New Jersey State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, Picatinny Arsenal, William Paterson University Police and numerous police agencies from nearby jurisdictions.

Over 60 volunteers acted as students, teachers, and victims along with approximately 35 current school district administrators, teachers, and staff. They donned light blue t-shirts some of which had large fake blood stains while other victims had realistic looking IV bags attached. Blanks were used in the guns as was a paintball apparatus.

The drill also included dramatizations at Wayne Valley High School where a scaled down version similar to WHHS’ took place where first responders ran the drill over 15 times. At George Washington Middle School however, explosions were set off to simulate a diversion tactic by the “so to speak” persons responsible, which were to set off the other events. All in all, 10 victims were “shot” with no fatalities. The volunteers were briefed on all accounts but the law enforcement personnel were not for obvious reasons.

“Unfortunately this is the ‘new norm’ and we must be prepared for anything that can happen with every government entity cooperating. It will be incredible to see the results,” said Mayor Chris Vergano.

Wayne Police Chief James Clarke said the township has come a long way since the last drill held at Schuyler-Colfax Middle School many years ago.

“I was a patrol lieutenant back then and I can remember being overwhelmed as the incident commander for the drill and not having enough manpower to deal with it all, but we learn from these drills. Everything has changed since the Columbine shooting,” Clarke said, referring to the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

According to Sgt. Keith McDermot, public information officer, Wayne has never participated in an event of this magnitude.

“It’s our obligation as elected officials to ensure the community’s safety,” added Vergano during a press conference prior to the exercise.

Volunteer Cynthia Gorkowski, guidance counselor at WHHS, said they began prepping for the drill at 7 a.m. preparing realistic gunshot wounds on several people.

“There were two scenarios. One included an active shooter with various rooms under lockdown mode and people were using their cell phones to record what they were seeing for a description of the two perpetrators. The second scenario involved a hostage situation in the main office which would lead to a negotiation situation. When we were prepping though, it all started to feel as if this was real and then the blank bullets echoing down the hallways made it more intense during the drill. It literally felt good to be rescued,” Gorkowski shared.

And to add to the realness, some volunteers suited up as fake members of the press were quickly escorted to a safe, secure environment.

The hostage taker was played by recently retired Det. Matthew Dox, who had to assume the role of a 21-year-old. Dox was with the Wayne Police for 34 years and was a member of the department’s original hostage negotiating team.

“I’ve taken part in other drills but nothing like this… this was overwhelming,” Dox said. “I don’t come with a plan. I can curse people out if I feel like it. This is realistic. They all did a great job, I didn’t see any problems at all.”

The event came about, according to Sgt. Bob Franco, when Homeland Security approached the Wayne Police after viewing a training session the department was involved in and asked if they would like to participate in a large scale drill.

“We’ve been preparing for this since January of this year,” Franco added. “Homeland Security got to test its technology and we got to test our tactics. Afterwards the feedback is analyzed by Homeland Security, and then the district applies for grants for any necessary technology upgrades.”

John Riedener, who runs the Target Behavior Response Lab at the U.S. Army Picatinny Arsenal, explained the expansive scenarios that unfolded and the various branches of the U.S. Army supporting them. Solider performance was sought after using non-lethal weapons with four man teams. Another pertinent area was the triage area or “warm zone” with the main focus centered around whether officers should get the “bad guy” first then send victims to the warm zone or vice versa. What would work best to ensure victims’ safety is the mindset.

Over 80 cameras were set up at WHHS and about 25 at the other two schools, he said. And they were monitored outside WHHS using several laptop computers and a large-screen television that divided up four of the hot spots in the school including the main office where the hostage scenario carried out. Four branches of the Army were utilized for this drill, all of which fall under its Armaments Research Development and Engineering Center.

“It took about two weeks setting up the camera equipment in the schools,” Riedener added. “This was a large undertaking. And the information we collect is shared with police departments across the country in hopes of ensuring safety for everyone.”

The press and other non-drill related personnel were not allowed inside the school for safety precautions.

Email: wintersd@northjersey.com

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