How do you prepare for the unspeakable? With precision, coordination – and a few drones don’t hurt.
The Modesto Police Department and Stanislaus Union School District held a daylong active-shooter training exercise Saturday at Prescott Junior High. The drill allowed Modesto SWAT teams to practice real-world school-shooting scenarios and allowed staff members at the north Modesto school district to improve their campus safety plans.
It was also the first time Modesto police deployed the department’s new drones (which it calls unmanned aerial vehicles) to assist in emergency response training. The department unveiled its new aircraft in August. The flying rigs are remote-controlled and equipped with cameras that can record and give real-time images to pilots on the ground. For the drill, a mobile command with video screens served as home base for the drone operators, who then relayed information to officers on the ground.
“We’re on the cutting edge of this technology,” said Modesto police Sgt. David Mullins. “We started this program at the beginning of this year. And we get calls from all over the state about what we’ve been doing. We’re very proud of it and hopefully it will stay strong.”
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My philosophy is you have got to be ready. You hope it doesn’t happen. But you’d be fooling yourself to think it couldn’t happen.
Modesto police Lt. Brandon Gillespie
About 40 Stanislaus Union School District staff members and about 30 Modesto police personnel took part in the training, which involved multiple scenario drills. Representatives from the Modesto Fire Department served as medics.
District Superintendent Britta Skavdahl reached out to Modesto police about staging the drill. Her administrative staff has been working for the past year with the Modesto Fire Department to learn the Incident Command System used by first responders.
“We wanted an opportunity to test that out and see what was missing,” Skavdahl said. “It’s a win-win – a training day for MPD and a training day for us.”
The district has 3,500 students across six schools, a junior high and five elementary schools. A Modesto Police Department spokeswoman said it is rare for the department to do such drills at junior highs, though it has done them in the past at high schools, Modesto Junior College and even Vintage Faire Mall.
School staff members were on site at Prescott Junior High throughout the training to re-create a normal school day. Skavdahl opted against having students participate because of the potential trauma that such events could have on young children.
Officers stormed the campus repeatedly wearing bullet-proof vests and brandishing military-style rifles. At the start of each scenario, school sirens blared or an intercom announced a lockdown due to an active shooter. The pop-pop-pop of nonlethal paint rounds could be heard intermittently while drones buzzed overheard, scanning the perimeter.
After each drill, the team would meet at a mobile command center off site to debrief. Modesto police Lt. Brandon Gillespie led the day’s events and said the department learns and improves with each drill.
“My philosophy is you have got to be ready. You hope it doesn’t happen. But you’d be fooling yourself to think it couldn’t happen,” he said.