By Jeff Bahr
As part of its yearly obligation to demonstrate emergency preparedness, and thereby maintain its accreditation, Bloomfield College conducted a campus-wide simulated emergency on Wednesday, April 18. The exercise began with a fire drill at Clee Hall at noon, followed by a shooter-on-campus scenario in the same building at 12:30 p.m.
The Bloomfield Township Office of Emergency Management and the Bloomfield Police Dept. worked in conjunction with Bloomfield E.M.T., the Bloomfield College Emergency Response Team, and two volunteer actors (playing the shooter and hostage).
Bloomfield College spokeswoman Jill Alexander said that another mock drill, also designed to test preparedness, had been performed in 2011.
“We had one last year that dealt with a chemical spill,” said Alexander. “It took place at College Hall where the Science and Math Departments and Chemistry and Biology labs are located. We brought in the head of the Chemistry Dept. to simulate a spill. It’s a learning process for us. Hopefully we’ll never have to do it for real. I think it’s important for the students to know that we’re prepared and that we work in close cooperation with township emergency officials.”
This year’s exercise, which took place inside a 118-bed residence on Liberty St., was viewed by reporters and observers from a raised deck at Siebert Hall, just to the west, across a courtyard. The Bloomfield P.D. Mobile Command Center was also situated here.
Bloomfield Police Officer Kevin O’Connell explained how the drill would be conducted after Clee Hall had been cleared of students and faculty. “The (Bloomfield) officers on patrol will get the call first,” said O’Connell, who emphasized that this first responding force would know nothing of the exercise before reaching the building. “When they arrive they’ll be briefed at the command center and they’ll take appropriate action.”
At 12 p.m., as per the plan, a fire alarm was sounded at Clee Hall and a text message was sent out to students. “Clee Hall is being evacuated,” it said. “Residents currently in Clee evacuate now to B.C. gym. This is a required drill.”
Within seconds, the first wave of students exited the building. They were followed by more students until the building was fully vacated. A “sweep” team entered to make sure that no one remained and an “all clear” was officially declared at 12:25 p.m.
At 12:30 p.m., another text message accompanied by an e-mail blast (a mass e-mail) was sent to students. This one explained that a “shooter on campus drill” was being conducted and that students should “stay put.”
At the same time, a call went out to police. In less than five minutes, they arrived with sirens blaring at the command center set up beside Clee Hall. Deputy O.E.M. Coordinator Thomas Pelaia told reporters what would happen next. “They need five people to go in the building. They work in teams. They’re organizing that right now. They’ll check their real weapons before entering. They’ll be issued unloaded guns.”
Pelaia then told reporters that the shooter (played by Bloomfield College buildings and ground crew employee Heinz Nordmann) and the hostage (played by college staff member Crystal Maldonado) were already inside Clee Hall on the third floor. Pelaia said that a noise, similar to that of a gun being discharged, would be sounded from this location, and that screams would also emanate from this room. Teams are trained to “fix” on locations using audio cues such as these, said Pelaia, so these sounds would be very useful in helping them to track their quarry.
Toting fake weapons that looked frighteningly real, the five-member team (commanded by Bloomfield Police Lt. Richard Wallace) entered the building. For several tense minutes, we assembled onlookers waited to hear a gunshot but, alas, never did. The thick brick walls of Cleo Hall were likely responsible for this.
Suddenly, a man dressed in jeans and a camouflage shirt emerged with his hands behind his head. He was followed by a determined looking squad with their weapons trained upon him. The female “hostage” was seen walking just a few paces behind – thankfully, still in one piece. The exercise was over.
At a debriefing on the balcony of Siebert Hall, Bloomfield Police Sgt. Michael Cooper told reporters that things weren’t quite as easy as they appeared from outside. “It went well. The officers went in the way they were trained, but it was a challenging building with cramped quarters,” he said. “They found the shooter on the third floor in a dorm room, but it was very small; the room was very compressed – it was difficult. They performed very well.”
Cooper then explained how one of his officers referred to the building as a “fatal funnel.” In police jargon, this means “a space where you don’t want to be because it’s a particularly dangerous place to be (leaving oneself a sitting duck for gunshots),” according to Cooper. “Our guys had not trained in this building in the past. It was an eye-opener.”
“We would use tactics that we used today in a real situation if this had really happened,” said Cooper. “(However) we would have directed security to clear the entire campus.”
When asked if this exercise was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the five-year anniversary of the infamous Virginia Tech campus shootings, Bloomfield Police Sgt. Anthony Servedeo said it wasn’t but seized upon the moment to point out the importance of such drills.
“This is a problem-solving and critical-thinking exercise for us,” said Servedeo. “Every college and university needs to do this.”