January 23, 2019

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Above, a U.S. Coast Guardsman applies a tourniquet to a 'shooting victim' with a simulated compound fracture, as the volunteer actor tries to revive her badly wounded 'husband.' Below, Coast Guard personnel detain a 'suspect' in the active shooter drill.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Above, a U.S. Coast Guardsman applies a tourniquet to a 'shooting victim' with a simulated compound fracture, as the volunteer actor tries to revive her badly wounded 'husband.' Below, Coast Guard personnel detain a 'suspect' in the active shooter drill.

ISLAMORADA — Screams of terrified panic echoed through near-empty halls of the old Plantation Key School. Blood trails splattered the floor.

Both the blood and screams were simulations but seemed as frighteningly real as the special effect bullet wounds artistically applied to limbs of volunteer “victims” who lay strewn through vacant classrooms.

Law enforcement and fire rescue agencies worked together Jan. 16 in an “active shooter” drill at the now unused school building in Islamorada. The exercise focuses on helping first responders work together in the wake of violent attacks.

“Who needs a gunshot wound?” asked a member of the “moulage” team that used theatrical makeup to turn healthy Florida Keys residents into blood-soaked survivors. Volunteer victims exchanged nervous smiles.

Once the drill starts, speakers blare recorded screams that are mixed with cries for help from the volunteer victims.

“It adds a certain emotional and humanistic quality to the event,” said Dr. S. Barry Issenberg, director of The Gordon Center for Research in Medical Education, based at University of Miami School of Medicine.

“We’re here because of recent events from around the country, particularly in the state of Florida where there have been three key events in the last three years: the Pulse [nightclub], the Fort Lauderdale airport and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” Issenberg said.

“It’s key to have equal participation from law enforcement and fire-rescue. They need to be ready to go in together.”

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Border Patrol and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office teamed with emergency medical technicians and paramedics from Islamorada Fire Rescue, Monroe County Fire Rescue and the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department.

Training groups typically number about 24 to 30 members, overseen by instructors. Law officers go in first to sweep the building for attackers. In the Jan. 16 drill scenario, one gunman murdered some victims and wounded many more.

Medical responders followed closely on the heels of law enforcement as part of the “Rescue Task Force.” They learned to stick together and not hesitate to begin triage and treatment amid the abandoned school desks.

“We’re all playing in the same sand box, so we need to know our strengths and weaknesses,” Islamorada Fire Rescue Chief Terry Abel said. “God forbid, if it does happen, we’ll know how to play together.”

A scenario may run from 15 minutes to a half-hour.

“It seems like four hours” to those in training, said Steven Carter, a fire captain and deputy operations director for the Gordon Center.

A grant from the Florida Department of Education provides funding for the joint-agency training. The first scenario in the program was held in late 2017 on Upper Matecumbe Key.

The goal is getting medical attention to victims as rapidly as possible, Issenberg said.

“We’ve seen in more and more of these recent events that often law enforcement officers are providing the first care,” he said. “For many of those in law enforcement, it’s the first time they’ve learned how to use a tourniquet.”

Many of the techniques developed by the center are based on experiences of U.S. Army personnel in combat zones.

“Some of the events they brought back now are being applied to civilians,” Issenberg said.

State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, donned an “observer” vest to watch the drills.

“Unfortunately, active shooter events have become more prevalent in our communities,” she said. “The need to prepare and train to respond to such events is critical. Our children’s safety while they are in school is of paramount importance, and previous incidents have shown us that improved coordination and communication between first responders is required to save lives.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com