GASTON COUNTY, N.C. -- Armed officers, armored vehicles, and teenagers running for their lives from a popular mall -- but none of it is real.
Gaston County law enforcement officers and first responders were responding as they would for an active shooter at Westfield Eastridge mall.
The “gunman” shot blanks, and the officers carried fake guns. But the training was critical so that officers from different departments could practice working together under a stressful, active situation.
“This is testing everyone's training, tests our communications, helps us better develop partnerships between law enforcement agencies,” said Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger before the scenario began.
Gastonia Police led the drill with Gaston County Police, Gaston Sheriff’s Office, Highway Patrol, Gastonia Fire, and Gaston Emergency Medical Services all taking part.
The police agencies and GEMS have tactical teams, but the point of the training was for officers and first responders from every part of the agencies to take part.
“It's patrol officers, it's SWAT officers, it’s traffic officers -- every officer in our police department has to be able to work with each other,” said Gastonia Police Capt. Mike Lari.
That more closely mirrors a real emergency, said Capt. Lari. If there were really a gunman loose in the mall, a patrol officer might be the first to respond, followed by – perhaps – Highway Patrol, paramedics, or firefighters.
“They have to be able to have the same training,” said Lari. “They have to be able to work as an effective team.”
Another element to mimic a real-life scenario: Officers were told they would be reporting for training, but not told it would be a life-like, active scenario.
They arrived at the mall, turned in their real guns, and stormed the mall looking for the gunman.
“When officers are in stressful situations, they revert back to their training,” said Capt. Lari. The more practice, the better.
Even police Explorers got to take part, playing teen “victims” running from the mall.
“It helps officers out because as crowd is running to you,” said Coleman Barrett. “It looks more real.”
Sheriff Cloninger said the departments get to learn what works and doesn’t work – including tactics, equipment, and timing. And they would learn what could save lives – or cost them – if the situation were real.
“That's why it’s important to do this training,” said Lari.
And the lessons continue from here. Training officers took notes during the drill, so officers could learn from them too.