It was a gorgeous sunny Florida day as I drove my son back to school after his annual wellness check. As I navigated the last street that leads up to his Elementary, I saw several sheriff vehicles tearing down the road in the opposite direction. Assuming they had been called to an incident in town, I proceeded to enter the school and park. I walked my son across the car park and entered the building. As I approached the desk, doctor’s note in hand I heard a teacher shout “Code Red!”. People started immediately, shepherding children into various classrooms and I heard the doors being locked behind me. “You’re going to have to come into the supply room with us Mr Geering!”, one teacher exclaimed.
I recognised the term “Code Red” from discussions with my little boy. He had recounted on several occasions that the school ran drills, as he put it “in case a bad guy tries to shoot us”. Hearing this would put my heart firmly in my throat as images from the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre flashed in my head. I use the word massacre as this lovely politically correct world we live in loves to downplay the horror that we see, with words such as “active shooter” or “act of terror”. As my son explained the way he and his classmates would have to practice sheltering in place, I felt a deep sense of sadness that innocent children whose only concern should be which game to play next, had to drill for potential murder.
The room we found ourselves in was where the printers and paper products were stored. Most of the school was hiding in their classrooms or caught whilst having lunch. It was then that it struck me just how vulnerable these children and their guardians are. Had an armed assailant entered the building, he (I say that as they are always male) would have had minimal resistance. I looked around the room and identified objects that could be used as a weapon. A fire extinguisher hung from the wall, cumbersome but possibly a distraction. On the table by the printer was a paper guillotine, upon closer examination, ripping the handle off would have created a pretty effective machete. My mind raced with all of the potential entry points a motivated shooter could exploit.
The teachers I shared the small space with frantically searched the internet and tried to find some clues as to what was happening outside. What you underestimate as a spectator is just how disconnected the people inside the school are from what everyone knows outside. I was so impressed with how quickly the staff had corralled the children into their various shelters and you could hear a pin drop during the incident. It was then that my son turned to me and said “I’m so glad you’re here with me Daddy.” At that moment, it hit me that the other 99% of the little girls and boys were hiding under a desk, terrified, not knowing if they were going to see their mum or dad again. “At least there is a Paramedic here with us,” he continued, “you can help people if the bad guy shoots them”.
It was at that moment that I realised that I was there under many banners. Of course, as a firefighter and paramedic, I have already sworn an oath to protect the very people I was sharing the building with. The other side though, was that I was there as his dad. I am not a soldier or a policeman, but if someone had entered with a weapon, there was no question that I was going to stop them or die trying. Please don’t misunderstand this as some fake machado, it would have been terrifying. The point is that I was his protector and at that point, there was no time to turn back the clock. Whatever I have done up to this point is the sum of my training. Had I spent the last twenty years on a couch, the chances of being able to protect my son and his friends would be slim to none. As a lifelong martial artist, first responder and athlete, those chances were significantly higher.
As it happened, this Code Red, the first one in the school’s history, was a false alarm. The local law enforcement agency had done a great job of taking a threat seriously and acted accordingly. In the Fire Department, we call this a “near miss”. There are two ways of reacting to this. Either do absolutely nothing and therefore learn absolutely nothing, or use this as an opportunity to learn and grow. False alarms and near misses are a gift allowing you to save lives if the event ever repeats itself with more deadly results. To ignore such an event and nurture the complacency that is the cancer of many departments is unacceptable. As I sat there in that school, I was given a soul shaking insight into the potential disaster that could have manifested.
So what did I learn, sitting in that room scanning for weapons like some warped episode of “The Walking Dead”? The incident would have two outcomes based on who responded. If the deputies, firefighters and medics that showed up had taken their jobs seriously every day of their careers, many lives would have been saved. The law enforcement officers had gone outside of their agencies and taken tactical shooting courses like Sheepdog Response with Tim Kennedy or Sentinel with Pat McNamara. These courses had prepared the officers with military level tactics, enhancing their effectiveness and increasing their own safety. The Paramedics had also taken a tactical medical course, like Doc Simpson’s SOTEC, learning combat trauma techniques. The firefighters had attended the local fire college, perfecting their forcible entry techniques. And let’s not forget the Chiefs, who had attended MCI training, prepared and practiced multi company drills and drafted well thought our preplans. This is further enhanced by strong financial backing by their employers, supporting the necessary costs to fund a well trained department.
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. The responding deputies had done the bare minimum throughout their career. They fired the six required rounds per year to qualify at the static shooting range. They had gradually gained weight and become deconditioned, having never taken any sort of unarmed combat class or tactical weapons training. The paramedics on scene had not continued training and become “cookbook medics”, relying on their protocol books to direct their every move. Physically, the medics had also become deconditioned and the stress of the incident alone has them exhausted. The firefighters have not undergone any training other than that mandated by their department. They struggle to find the correct tools on their truck and go into a state of panic as the enormity of the situation hits them. The first Chief on scene realises that his department has not prepared for this incident despite several near misses in the past. Due to a lack of training and preplanning, the units on scene begin to freelance and communication breaks down.
These are obviously the two extremes but the reality is that there is most likely going to be a mixture of both types on scene. The rescuer going in to save your child may have trained diligently for this moment or may be nothing but a liability. The point I am trying to make is that every day we have the opportunity to join one of those two groups. You make training part of your daily routine, eat well, exercise and educate yourself, then you will rise to the challenge if, God forbid, this tragedy occurs in your City. Bury your head in the sand and have the “it will never happen here” mentality, then their blood will be on your hands. We swore an oath to protect our community, and with that oath goes a huge responsibility. You also swore an unspoken oath when you became a parent and that too carries an immense duty to act.
We can analyse why these tragedies keep happening in our country, but that focus does not protect the children, men and women who are at risk today. I hope that an increased sense of community will begin to lessen these incidents but in the meantime, we, the Sheepdogs, need to be ready. If thirty years of training results in saving one solitary life, then all of the sweat was worth it. Don’t just hang your gear in the rig or throw on your vest. Make a promise to yourself and those you serve that your will end your shift a better firefighter, police officer or medic than when you started. Do that every day, and when you are most needed, you will be ready to rise up and fulfill the very promise you made when they pinned that badge on your chest.
Be safe out there.
Listen to the Behind the Shield Podcast to hear more from Tim Kennedy, Pat McNamara, Tony Blauer, Doc Simpson, Dr Ibrahim and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman on this subject.