"There's no question, it prepares you," Police Chief Anthony M. Pesare said, after going through the intense training exercise in the school's debris-strewn hallways. "The noises, the smoke, the bullets, the realism of it gets you ready in case we ever need to deal with such a situation, God forbid."
Despite statistics that show school-related shootings are on the rise nationwide, Garcia said many believe it couldn't happen in their hometown.
Referring to the Columbine shooting in Colorado in 1999 and more recently the rampage at Virginia Tech, Garcia said police and other emergency personnel must be ready to react at a moment's notice.
"That's the attitude we're dealing with," Garcia said. "People just don't think it can happen here. It used to be an extraordinary event in the '80s and early '90s, but nowadays it's in another town, in another building and another shooter and we have to be ready to deal with it and deal with it in force."
Columbine changed everything
Before the Columbine massacre, Garcia said it was widely accepted procedure during situations with an "active shooter" for police to wait outside a building for a SWAT team to arrive, sweep the structure and take out the threat.
The problem, as Columbine illustrated, was that it usually takes an hour - or more - for such special tactical units to mobilize and by that point, most of the damage already is done, Garcia said.
Now, with an active shooter, the first police officer to get to the scene is appointed incident commander, Garcia said.
Unless relieved, the incident commander never goes into the building, but acts instead as the "quarterback" at the scene, responsible for gathering as much information as possible and organizing the officers who arrive into three- or four-person squads to storm the building.
The role of those teams isn't to care for the wounded or get rid of pipe bombs and other threats, but simply to remove the shooter, Garcia said.
While that theory is contrary to some of the training police have received, Garcia said it has been shown by police departments and military units across the country to be the best way to handle such a situation. He said different guidelines are used for a barricaded suspect or someone who is not an "active shooter."
"You're going to have to go past victims and other things we've been trained in the past to take care of," Garcia said. "Your objective is to stop that victim-producing machine."
An important thing for officers to remember, he said, is to remain as calm as possible, be aware of their surroundings and tell victims that help is on the way.
"These people that you're dealing with are in shock," Garcia said. "We see and deal with death and destruction almost every day, but these people do not, so be aware of that."
In the morning session, Garcia reintroduced those on hand to some of the more notorious school shooters in history, using a computer-generated slide presentation.
Despite studies by the best minds in the field, no commonality has been found among them, Garcia said.
"Not every loner who is wearing black is a killer and not every killer is a loner wearing black," he said. "You can't really tell. There's no one thing that links the profiles of these people. If you look at them, all you'll usually see is that they're little kids.
"(Charles) Whitman did this in '66," Garcia added, referring to the University of Texas tower shooter. "This has been going on a long time, it just seems more devastating these days and word spreads more quickly now than it did before."
About half of the department was in attendance Monday. The other half is expected to go through the exercise today.
After lunch, Sgt. Michael Faria and Middletown Fire Capt. Paul Manning joined Garcia to have officers apply what they learned in "real-life" exercises.
Police officers in each round faced a chaotic situation, one that might mirror what could happen locally, complete with sounds, smells and other assaults on the senses.
After each test through an obstacle course of horrors - including one with a trip wire - Garcia and others discussed what worked and what areas needed work. The officers applauded Garcia for his presentation and effort to open their eyes to the realities they could face.
"This was real," Patrol Officer Thomas Cabral said. "This was the best training exercise I've ever gone through, and it really helped show what we might be up against. Up to this point, it's been firearms, clearing rooms and felony car stops, but this was what it could be like and it's good to know we're preparing for it."
In recent years, there have been a rash of shootings in schools and businesses across the country. A few tips from the Middletown Police Department to help stay safe:
- Be vigilant. If you notice something that doesn't appear quite right, report it to police.
- Talk to your child to see if anyone at school has been exhibiting disturbing behavior.
- Plan ahead and have a game plan for emergency situations.
- Consult with school officials and others about possible concerns.