ROWLAND — Robeson County lawmen have been practicing the past couple of weeks to face a scenario they hope to never see.
“This training is mandatory,” Sheriff Ken Sealey said Thursday. “I want all my deputies to be prepared for any scenario that requires a rapid response, such as an active shooter. We’ve done this training for years. We appreciate the schools for working with us each year.”
Sealey believes yearly rapid response training is the department’s number one priority, said Sgt. Detective Darryl McPhatter, of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. A variety of mock drills are thrown at unsuspecting lawmen because “in real life you don’t know what the suspect is going to do,” McPhatter said.
“That is the number one thing on our mind. To take him (the shooter) down quick, fast because as long as he is in there, and is alone, the more children can be shot and killed,” McPhatter said. “They (instructors) train them (lawmen) the safest way to move down hallways and to take the bad guy out fast. It’s like you are flipping a switch on a machine. Each officer knows what the other officer is going to do in advance. We want to go in there and stop him.”
The training was taking place at South Robeson High School on Wednesday.
“We are doing rapid deployment training, simulating an active shooter in our school system,” said Lewis Woodard, Sheriff’s Office training coordinator. “We are trying to rewire the thinking patterns for the way the officers are thinking and the way the body is naturally going to react.”
A succession of rapid gunshots rang out through the hallways as each scenario was carried out. Shell casings bounced off walls to litter the hallways. The smell of gunpowder filled the hallways as each group of deputies executed its scenario assignments.
“Get your hands up,” one deputy shouted at the “bad guy.”
“Turn around slowly and get on your knees,” another deputy demanded.
And the training exercise ends with the capture of the “shooter.”
“Naturally, when you know you are going to be in a room where you’re going to get shot, your body is telling you not to go in that room,” Woodard said. “Which is natural. That is what I would expect. We are training the officers that their lives take second place to civilians.”
Sheriff’s Office Lt. Eldon Alford is a basic law enforcement general instructor for Robeson Community College.
“My goal today was to come in, teach and help with the officers and deputies that are coming in to train today and making them be more aware, dealing with active shooters,” Alford said Wednesday. “Also, how to maneuver in classrooms and go wherever the active shooter is at and trying to stop the threat. Training and practice is important.”
After going through mock drills officers and deputies should have no problem with a live situation, he said. The simulation is as close as it gets to the real thing.
“It will help them be clear on how to handle the situation. Yes, you going to have that tunnel vision to start off, but what you got to do is train your mind to activate and to always resort back to your training. You’ve got to train yourself and train your mind. That is what we are here to do.”
Those who participate in the training will receive credit toward their required continuing education, which includes four hours of classroom training and four hours of practical testing, Woodard said.
“Today was just the Sheriff’s Office,” he said Wednesday. “But I’ve trained them all. In the past, I’ve trained officers from all law agencies in the county.”
Rapid deployment training is offered yearly by Robeson Community College, in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ve been doing eight classes each year, like this, for the last 12 years,” Woodard said. “If this scenario was to occur, the training will prepare them (lawmen) for any kind of emergency situation. It provides an immediate response to an ongoing life-threatening situation, like Columbine.
“Time is of the essence in any emergency. When you are the one that needs police, five minutes seems like a lifetime. And in an active shooter situation, seconds count. We don’t want our local lawmen to have to wait on SWAT teams.
“In the span of 16 minutes, 13 were killed and 21 were wounded at Columbine High School. This training also helps with speed, agility and alertness.”
There were 19 Sheriff’s Office deputies at South Robeson High School on Wednesday. They divided into four groups and were given three different scenarios involving an active shooter.
All participants were outfitted with protective gear and armed with a handgun loaded with soap pellets, Woodard said. Adding ammunition in the training makes the scenario as realistic as it can get.
“Pain is a great motivator. We’ve tried this before with guns that didn’t shoot. I got you, bang bang. It was like watching a bunch of kindergarten kids on a playground. There was nothing realistic about it,” he said. “The ammo adds the true fear. If you are hit, it will put a big bruise on you. It does hurt. But we have to make it appear real.”
So far, St. Pauls, Purnell Swett, Fairmont, Lumberton and South Robeson high schools, Long Branch Elementary and Fairmont Middle School have been used in this year’s training.
The training ends Friday with scenarios at Red Springs High School.
“I change schools every year. There are 42 public schools in the county. I am lucky I’ve been in all the schools in Robeson County,” Woodard said. “I know the layout. And that is important to know.”
Woodard advises all responding law enforcement officers to get familiar with all the county schools.
“The ones they (law enforcement agencies) don’t train should stop by and talk to the principals. Ask for a tour. I want them to know where the schools are at. I mean, some are way off from the city,” he said. “ I want them to familiarize themselves with the layout in case there is an emergency. If they are told to go to the gymnasium or the library they will know where to go.”
The Public Schools of Robeson County administrators have been very cooperative and have graciously allowed the training to take place, he said.
“We have to thank them. If they didn’t let us in the school, the training wouldn’t appear to be as realistic as it is. That would defeat the purpose,” he said. “We couldn’t do this every year without their help and we appreciate their support.”
According to Woodard there haven’t been any active shooter incidents in the county, but he can’t say the same for the state.
“In Robeson county no, in North Carolina yes,” he said. “We have had active shooters at several different schools in North Carolina.”
There was only one active shooter situation at a North Carolina school between 2000 and 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That was in Hillsborough on Aug. 30, 2006.
Training and mock drills are necessary in recent times, Woodard said. Preparedness is the best way to help avoid mass casualties in an active shooter situation.
“We got children dying all across of our nation, involving active shooters going in our schools. They are killing our babies. We need to be prepared,” he said. “We need to respond as quick as we can and train every law enforcement officer how to respond. Whether they are by themselves or if they’ve got a team with them.
“When you put on the badge, you say, ‘I am willing to lay down my life for someone else’s life or a child other than your own.’”
Reach Annick Joseph by calling 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]