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Regional News

Lessons Learned From An Active Shooter Simulation

The sound of gunfire recently filled the halls of the Hampden County Sheriff's office in Ludlow, Massachusetts. It was part of a training for employees to learn how to respond to an active shooter. 

In a large conference room, Sheriff Nick Cocchi addressed staff members seated around a long table before the training began.

The Hampden County jail he oversees has tight security for obvious reasons.

But the building right next to it, which houses the offices of the sheriff's department, is open to the public.

"Some people ask, 'Why are we doing this?'" Cocchi said. "We're doing it because there always is a potential possibility, especially in our line of work, that we could get a disenfranchised ex-employee, a family member of one of our offenders, or just somebody from the community who doesn't believe in the mission we carry out each and every day."

Sheriff Nick Cocchi addresses Hampden County Sheriff's Department employees before the training starts.
Credit Alden Bourne / NEPR
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NEPR
Sheriff Nick Cocchi addresses Hampden County Sheriff's Department employees before a training starts.

Employees learned how to barricade their doors, and how to calm their breathing, so they don't feel so panicked when they hear gunfire.

They also studied what happened in the Parkland shooting, and learned how to fight back with common office objects.

Staff members went through three live simulations. During each one, a person impersonating a gunman entered the building and started firing blanks. Law enforcement officers then responded to the scene.

Steve Grasso, a police officer who helped lead the training, gave employees instructions before one of the scenarios.

"What I want you to do is lock your doors, pull blinds if you have them," Grasso said. "Pay attention to the gunshots. If they're out front, barricade in. If you hear those gunshots get further and further away, and off in the distance, and you think you can safely evacuate, that is your call — and no one else can tell you yes or no on that. You can't ask us."

Employees went to their offices and waited.

Office mates Cheryl Racco and Michael Sotherland were among them.

When they heard the gunfire, they closed the door, turned off the lights and pushed a large table in front of the door.

Michael Sotherland and Cheryl Racco close their office door when they hear gunfire during an active shooter simulation.
Credit Alden Bourne / NEPR
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NEPR
Michael Sotherland and Cheryl Raccio close their office door when they hear gunfire during an active shooter simulation.
Mark Poggi, an Agawam Police officer, impersonates a gunman during an active shooter simulation at the Hampden County Sheriff's Department in Ludlow, Massachusetts.
Credit Mark Murray / Hampden County Sheriff's Department
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Hampden County Sheriff's Department
Mark Poggi, an Agawam Police officer, impersonates a gunman during an active shooter simulation at the Hampden County Sheriff's Department in Ludlow, Massachusetts.

Roccio and Sotherland learned afterwards that the gunman had walked right past their office.

Steve Grasso said other people chose to evacuate.

"I think there was so much confusion over where the gunshots were coming from that they got disoriented, and actually exited their offices, and tried to evcauate, when they should have stayed put and barricaded," Grasso said. "If you do not know it's safe to evacuate, then you stay put, and you barricade, and you put yourself in a position to counter if he makes entry. You're buying time for armed officers to respond." 

A law enforcement officer hunts for the gunman while officer plays dead on the floor during an active shooter simulation.
Credit Alden Bourne / NEPR
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NEPR
A law enforcement officer hunts for the gunman while another officer plays dead on the floor during an active shooter simulation.

Grasso said he counted a minimum of seven people who tried to evacuate who would have been casualties — and that the number would be higher if the gunman had a rifle.

Cheryl Racco said that before the training, she would have reacted differently.

"I would have hid, but I may not have turned turned off the lights," she said. "Probably would have shut the door. Barricading? I would make sure that I did it this time."

As part of the training, the sheriff's office will be receiving a set of recommendations on other ways to keep its employees safe. And more drills are planned. 

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