At 8:55 a.m. the call went out on police radio: “Homewood units. Subject with a gun, 1300 190th street.”
In less than four minutes, police were on scene, had entered the building, encountered one shooter, and discovered several explosive devices.
One student died. One shooter died. Two police officers and as many as 10 students were injured.
If that sounds like a familiar scene of carnage in a U.S. school, it was intended to. But this time, it was a drill rather than a tragedy, and its purpose was to help prepare local public safety agencies to respond in case such an incident ever does happen here.
The critical incident drill lead by the Homewood Police Department Tuesday morning, July 29, involved a coordinated response from area police departments, including East Hazel Crest, Flossmoor, Glenwood, and Thornton. Homewood Public Works and Fire Department also participated, and school officials from Flossmoor and Homewood observed the simulation play out, according to Homewood Deputy Police Chief Denise McGrath.
And police chiefs from other agencies observed the drill and will provide an evaluation of the response, she said.
More than 60 people participated in the drill, McGrath said. About 30 were role players, many of them Homewood-Flossmoor High School football players. About 30 were police officers. There were also two volunteers portraying shooters.
There were several purposes for the drill, McGrath said, to test tactical training, to help officers build confidence in their tactical and mental skills, and to test interagency communication and cooperation.
“This incident was to bring all of the training we do throughout the year together to see how the officers handle all the tactical and mental training they’ve received,” McGrath said. “We incorporate other emergency services — the fire department, other police agencies — to see how those units function together when they are not familiar with each other and have all the added stress.”
Before the drill began, only two of the participants knew how the simulation would unfold.
“Even I don’t know what’s going to happen,” McGrath said.
The scenario — and the training preceeding it — draws from past shooting incidents, starting with the 1999 Columbine massacre.
“There’s something you can learn from any incident,” McGrath said. Columbine, for example, “changed the way police respond to these types of incidents. Every time one of these happens, we try to take away something from a real life incident that we can incorporate into our training.”
One thing that changed after Columbine was basic tactics. Rather than first setting up a perimeter and securing the scene, police today pursue the threat until it is neutralized. And that’s what Homewood officers did Tuesday.
McGrath said her initial assessment of the police response in the simulation was good.
“I think they did an excellent job,” she said. “The officers went in immediately. There was no delay.”
She noted that the second wave of officers on the scene set up an effective containment perimeter. Then when the second shooter tried to escape, he was hemmed in and immediately taken into custody.
In addition to the benefit of the drill for officers and public safety agencies, McGrath said there is a benefit to the community. She said the drill can demonstrate that “we constantly strive to give our officers the best training, equipment and preparation for these incidents.”
Village Manager Jim Marino concurred.
“It’s very important for us to train,” he said. “Unfortunately, these incidents continue to happen throughout the country and we have to be prepared for it.”
Two neighbors, Sam Miller and Chris Ussery, observing the scene from across Center Street, seemed to share the favorable impression of the drill.
“Everybody had a job to do,” Ussery said. “It looked as if it was the real thing. They were obviously learning the right procedures.”
“I have grandkids here, and it makes you feel a little better to know they know what they are doing,” Miller said.
The drill was also a good learning experience for volunteer participants, many of whom were HF football players. Three of them, Kevin, Kaine and David, stopped briefly to share their views on being part of the drill.
“It was very organized,” David said. “I was in the room (with the shooter). We had to run.”
They said the drill seemed realistic as it unfolded.
“It was an adrenaline rush,” Kaine said.