Island police knew it was all a drill.
But that didn’t matter when a 911 call reporting an active shooter inside the Edgartown School came in Saturday morning.
Within minutes after the call was placed, several dozen on-duty and off-duty police officers responded to the scene. Edgartown officers arrived on the school campus first, followed by uniformed officers from West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs police, state police and the Martha’s Vineyard tactical response team. Emergency medical personnel parked ambulance trucks outside the gymnasium and set up a triage station for victim rehabilitation inside. Even though Island rescue personnel and authorities knew it was a practice drill, they were ready.
That was the objective. “It is supposed to feel like a real-life scenario,” West Tisbury police chief Daniel Rossi said minutes before the drill began at 9 a.m.
The Saturday drill involved crossover help from multiple Island emergency service organizations and police departments. Chief Rossi and Edgartown police chief Tony Bettencourt were stationed together at the start.
Chief Bettencourt said the point of the drill was to practice rescue casualties in the event of a school shooting.
Although it took place on a Saturday, police pretended it was a Tuesday to make it more realistic; officers who normally work on Tuesdays were called in. Victims were played by volunteer actors and suspects were played by police. Edgartown School administrators were also involved.
“There’s real faculty inside just like there would be,” said Chief Rossi before the drill began. “Only thing missing is the students.”
The active shooter exercise was organized by Edgartown fire department deputy chief Alexander Schaeffer and Edgartown police officer Ryan Ruley. They began organizing the event in September and have held a number of meetings leading up to the drill, Chief Rossi said.
Safety was a priority.
“Anyone inside the building had to be checked with a safety officer to make sure they had no live ammunition,” said Officer Ruley, who is also a school resource officer.
Police marked officers entering the building with neon orange ribbon and tape, signifying they had no ammunition. “That definitely wouldn’t have happened in real life,” Officer Ruley added.
Officers arrived at the school around 8 a.m. to begin staging the drill. They left the campus around 1:30 p.m. “It was a good opportunity to train regionally and with both EMS and police and we look forward to using today to implement a better response plan for the community,” Officer Ruley said.
It was a mild spring-like day with temperatures around 50, but a state police helicopter could not participate in the drill due to fog. However, according to Officer Ruley, the biggest obstacle was communication.
“We learned a lot,” he told the Gazette after the drill concluded. “Communication proved to be our biggest enemy. We had a hard time communicating on certain radio channels inside the school with people outside the school. That delayed response time and made things a little harder,” he said. Is this something Island police can fix? “We’re going to try,” Officer Ruley said. “That’s the point of these drills. We are going to discuss this more and move forward with it.”