When I first arrived at Joliet Junior College Wednesday afternoon, I interviewed Joliet Junior College Police Chief Pete Comanda about the details of the drill that was about to begin. As they have since 2008, Joliet Junior College sponsored an active shooter drill Wednesday and civilians participated in the drill.
As Comanda explained to me what was going to go on, I began to feel a little apprehensive. Sure, I knew this was all pretend. But I also knew that my adrenaline was about to go berserk because the chemical reaction in my body doesn't know the scenario is just for training and education.
After interviewing Comanda, all of the participants gathered in a large room to view a film about active shooters. By now, all my porcupine-like hairs were standing on end. I kept glancing behind me, worried that they would start the active shooter drill without the warning they had promised. I found myself scared of being scared. Totally ridiculous.
When I headed out to the drill, I happily put on the yellow vest that identified me as an observer. Which meant (kinda most importantly for me) no one playing the role of a shooter was going to point a gun in my face. I had the freedom to roam around the building, shooting photos or video and the participants would pretend I was not there.
There was a weird moment when one of the people playing a shooter exited a classroom, shouting and holding a gun and I moved out of the way, afraid that despite the bright, yellow vest, she would turn the weapon on me. In fact, I so became absorbed in this scenario that when the police entered the hallway, I awkwardly juggled the camera and iPhone and pad of paper I was working with so that I could put my hands up in the air.
I mean, these police officers KNEW who the people were playing the shooters - they were the other police officers. And, yet, my body took over. When the participants took the shooters down in the hall, I was composed enough to keep filming. But I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest.
Here is what I learned, though. All of the reactions I experienced, including putting my hands up in the air, were things I had been taught. I had been to one such active shooter scenario before and a couple other self-defense kinds of classes. I think that what they say is true. The more you train, even if it's just by attending drills, the more you just react and not panic.
This was definitely true at the end of the drill. The four men who tackled the two gunmen were in the following order: a man who has practiced the martial art Shorinji Kempo for 20 years, a National Guardsman, a Marine who is currently in the National Guard and a man who serves in the Air Force. These are men who are trained - to stay calm, to diffuse a situation and to keep other people safe.
I managed to appear calm. But I was far from it. As can be viewed by watching the video, when the police officer demonstrating what gunfire sounds like fired a round, I could not even keep the camera steady enough to capture it well. I included the video because we should know what gunfire sounds like so we can identify it quickly. And, we should all go and learn more about these scenarios and how we should react if, no matter how small the chance, we find ourselves in them. By learning more about active shooters, Comanda says we actually do prepare ourselves for other kinds of emergencies. We keep our wits about us.
"When people are aware, they become more aware in general," he said.
That is what we need. We need people to call police when a situation looks like it might tip from scary to deadly, not only after shots are fires. We need regular people to trust that little voice that says something is wrong. We need to know things as basic as when you enter a building, note where the exits are. It's good to know. And if there was an emergency, a fire, a weather event or even an active shooter, those seconds you save could mean your life.