Situation critical

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 4, 2007

An exploding pipe bomb.

A terrorist making demands and taking hostages.

Frantic parents storming school grounds and confronting armed police officers.

Those were just a few of the circumstances involved in Wednesday night's homeland security exercise conducted at Greenville High School.

&#8220We go in and play as if it is a real event,” said Lee Helms, the state's former EMA director, whose company Lee Helms Associates offers emergency planning and consultation in almost every county in Alabama. Wednesday's event involved countywide law enforcement, the Greenville fire department, EMA officials, first responders and the emergency room staff at L.V. Stabler Hospital.

The scenario?

A masked man storms Greenville High School, armed with explosives and firearms. They take the principal, assistant principal and several students hostage, wiring the hallways of the school with pipe bombs and tripwire explosives before ushering their captives into a dark classroom. They make demands and they threaten lives. And they carry through with that threat as a pipe bomb explodes in one of the high school's courtyards, severely injuring and killing several students.

That series of events initiates an emergency tactical response from area law enforcement. A command post is established. Police surround the high school, covering all exits. The city's special response team boards an armored van and prepares to enter the building. Paramedics arrive to tend to the injured. Doctors are put on alert at the hospital.

Helms said the idea of the exercise was not to be critical of how emergency personnel respond to the scenario. It's a training exercise, he said, meant to highlight the good - as well as the bad - and advise on what corrections need to be made.

Following the exercise, the main problem agreed upon by evaluators and local officials was communication. Fire department personnel and police were unable to communicate with one another via radio, while the emergency room at L.V. Stabler didn't know the nature and number of injured until the wounded started arriving.

&#8220Law enforcement was top notch,” said evaluator Billy Mims. &#8220But communications was the number one problem.”

Another issue was the sheer vastness of Greenville High School, with its abundance of classrooms, hallways, courtyards and closets. While one squad of the city's special response team spent time extracting the wounded, the other was busy on the opposite side of the school clearing that section of the facility of any suspected bad guys. And police had no idea where the suspects and his hostages were. (Of course, in a real situation, police would have access to the school's multitude of security cameras inside the building's office.)

Bill Collum, a veteran SWAT team member from Chilton County who played the terrorist, said response time to a hostage situation is one of the biggest problems facing law enforcement today.

&#8220Experience has shown us that in most situations the hostages are dead after 23 minutes,” he said. &#8220That's not a lot of time. We may be looking in the future at training one, two, or three men to go in after the shooter.”

While the scenario was as real as possible, Collum was jovial and talkative throughout with his hostages, whose arms were &#8220bound” behind their backs with loose fitting bungee cords. GHS principal Dr. Kathy Murphy and assistant principal Anderson Graves were among those hostages.

Murphy called the experience an &#8220interesting one.”

&#8220To say the least,” she said.

One funny moment:

Collum released one of the student hostages out the window, who then ran down the front road of GHS to the command center. Sheriff Kenny Harden asked the student what Collum's demands were.

&#8220He said he wanted a car, food and to change the colors in the school dress code,” said Harden, laughing.

Afterwards, Helms called Collum the &#8220best bad guy” around.

&#8220Bill's good at what he does and real creative,” he said.

Still, the Collum could play the &#8220terrorist” role. He escalated events, surrounding himself with hostages and marching from his classroom hideout into the front lobby of the school. SRT members, standing at the end of the hall, confronted him, yelling for him to stop.

&#8220You see this!” he screamed back, brandishing a hand grenade. &#8220You keep up the crap and you'll have six dead bodies on your hand.”

Collum exited through the front of the building, hostages in tow, loading them in Helms own trailer and truck. He was stopped near the front of the school and after &#8220shooting” two policemen, finally taken down.

&#8220We had a creative ending to this one,” said Helms, who said Collum had been begging him for weeks to try an escape scenario during one of the exercises.

Collum complimented school resource officer Malcom Owens, who was his contact during negotiations through the school's intercom.

&#8220I did everything I could to get under his skin but he (Owens) kept his cool,” said Collum.

He regretted not having any encounters with special response team members though. The team never made it to the classroom, nor to the multitude of booby traps Collum had prepared for them along the school's hallways. That's what spurred his escape attempt.

&#8220We acted like jack rabbits and ran,” he said.

Helms said evaluators and county officials would take what was learned from Wednesday's exercise and develop an after action plan for submittal to the homeland security department. He applauded the commitment from those involved on Wednesday.

&#8220We had outstanding participation for this exercise,” he said. &#8220Now we're going to take what we learned and look at the areas that need improvement. But from a general standpoint, the exercise was a success.”