Wis. county first responders test emergency response with school shooting drill | #schoolsaftey

By John Gittings


JUNEAU COUNTY, Wis. — School shootings and mass casualty events in other areas have been on the rise in recent years, and first responders in the Juneau County area took a step toward being better prepared.

The Juneau County Emergency Management department, led by director and Lyndon Station police chief Jeremy Bonikowske, brought together area county law enforcement agencies, fire departments and emergency medical services on June 7 at Mauston High School to take part in preparation exercises.

Staff for the agencies carried mock weapons and practiced techniques for entering rooms throughout the building, approaching the possible shooter, and rescuing injured individuals, portrayed by volunteer community actors.

“We’re testing our emergency response plans in the event of an active shooter at a school district here in Juneau County,” said Bonikowske. “We’re working with fire, law enforcement, and EMS just testing our capabilities and making certain our plans are good in the event something like this were to happen.”

Wisconsin State Patrol troopers, Juneau County Sheriff’s Office deputies, and officers and command staff from police departments in Mauston, New Lisbon, and Wonewoc all participated in the event. Fire and EMS staff from Mauston and the other Juneau County communities, as well as Reedsburg in Sauk County, also participated.

Bonikowske added that emergency management has been planning this training over the past four years, with a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He and Mauston city administrator Randy Reeg said that there has not been any significant active shooter threats in Mauston or Juneau County.

“We’d rather be prepared for something than not be prepared,” said Bonikowske.

The county contracted with Pre-Emergency Planning, a Lodi-based company that specializes in planning and training for emergency situations. Melissa Waller, the company’s owner, attended the event and said the planning for it was in conjunction with the area responders, Mile Bluff Medical Center, and the volunteer actors.

“It really gives them an opportunity to test and validate their plans and work with partners to make sure we can communicate, have realistic expectations from one another, and really get a chance to operationally test,” said Waller.

Waller emphasized the importance of being prepared for such events and discussed flexibility in planning for various situations based on circumstances.

“That’s something we work really hard at, as well as presenting some unique challenges so that it’s not a traditional event that they would expect,” said Waller, referring to adaptability in training.

Mauston Police Department Chief Mike Zilisch said that active shooter training is not only instrumental for his department and other first responders, but for the general public. He added that MPD had performed similar events four times in the past.

“Full-scales are nice because they’re kind of ‘real-world-ers’ — as close as we can get to real world,” said Zilisch. “A lot of times when we do role-play, it’s not full-scale … more of a tabletop exercise.”

He added that smaller scale exercises feature more script reading and other factors that do not prepare law enforcement and others as much for real life situations. Full-scale trainings like the one at Mauston High School give Zilisch and others a better idea of how responders would perform in a real-life active shooter or other dangerous situations.

“What tools you may need, what things may need to be polished, what things you don’t necessarily have to focus on,” said Zilisch regarding the advantages of full-scale exercises.

Reeg lauded area first responders’ ability to create the active shooter preparedness plan. He said that investments from the city and county into first responder agencies pay off with exercises such as the one on June 7.

He also discussed the county and its municipalities’ limited resources with regard to mental health treatment and the challenges that can create.

“It comes up all the time, but with the limited resources, we don’t have a great capacity to invest in it for the most part,” said Reeg. “We’re always happy for opportunities to arise to find resources to get to the people that need it.”

The volunteer community actors portrayed injured individuals, with body and clothing paint designed to simulate bullet wounds. They also mock limped and expressed pain emotions to help train the EMS staff. One drill portrayed a possible death from injuries in which EMS staff utilized a bed sheet as a body bag, though the actor was not covered with the sheet.

EMS staff and law enforcement carried the “injured” actors from different rooms in Mauston High School to the school’s common area near its main entrance, where they were given “treatment.”

Mannequins were placed in random areas throughout Mauston High School to portray dead individuals from a possible mass shooter. Before rescuing individuals, officers found and apprehended an actor portraying an active shooter in the band room of the high school.

“I don’t think we can get enough of it,” said New Lisbon Police Chief Kyle Walker in regard to active shooter training. “I don’t think you can overprepare, whether it’s a school-based incident, workplace violence, or something like that. It’s great working with our community partners.”

Walker said that his department and the other first responders share information about possible threats and other issues that could lead to tragic situations in order to be proactive and prevent possible events. He said that school and business safety plans are beneficial and that community involvement can help improve them even more.

Western Technical College’s Mauston campus on the northeast side of the city held a reunification area practice to go along with the training. Sue Goyette, the School District of Mauston’s transportation director, said that Western Technical College was chosen because of its distance from the school, emphasizing the importance of a safe place being a distance away from the site of an unfortunate event.

“Maybe there’s something going on in the neighborhood that we’d have to lock the schools down,” said Goyette, also pointing out other possible events such as fires and weather-related situations. “We don’t want kids to just go home. We need to make sure we’re getting them with the correct and safe guardians so they can get home.”

Goyette added that reunification sites are meant to reunite students with the correct family members in a possible mass casualty event.

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