In an elaborate drill held on the banks of Castaic Lake on Tuesday, approximately 100 men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department participated in an active shooter training, honing their skills to not only be physically ready for that type of situation, but mentally, as well.
“Adrenaline is basically a hormone that’s released in your body under stressful situations,” said Deputy Brittany Fraser, with the LASD Parks Bureau, the portion of the department that organized Tuesday’s drills. “And basically, it causes that fight-or-flight response, where all the blood rushes to your extremities to either run away or fight the threat.”
Fraser said that through that in adrenaline-fueled situations, things such as dexterity, decision-making and vision are hampered, and these drills make deputies conditioned to that reality during a live situation.
“The skills are always perishable,” said Deputy Natalie Arriaga, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station. “So, it’s always important that we continue to refresh our memories of anything that needs any updating, any skills that need to be applied — or just always continuing to learn how to render aid, neutralize a threat and just prepare ourselves for any type of situation.”
How it works
Beginning at 6 a.m. and going until about noon, the drill started a few hundred yards away from the recreation center at the lake.
At the top of the hill, deputies clothed in their uniforms and protective face coverings listened to their commanding officer give the layout of the plan in a similar fashion to what they would do during a live event. With a piece of paper showing the schematics and/or other relevant known details taped to a sheriff’s vehicle in front of them, groups of close to a dozen deputies listened to how they would handle the simulation.
“They’re going to talk about how they’re going to enter the building, who’s going to cover what, because you always have a cover when you’re handling these situations,” said Arriaga. “Maybe they’ll give them a breakdown also of what the call for service is, maybe we had this active shooter reported here or how many active shooters we had.”
Loaded inside their rifles and other firearms, deputies have magazines filled with training rounds that are non-lethal, detergent-based projectiles and allow for realistic training without risk of injury.
“It leaves a bruise,” said Fraser. “It’s probably similar to paintball in that it actually hurts; if it hits your hands, you might bleed a little. It’s meant to be as realistic as possible.”
Upon making entry into the building, the exercise is designed for those involved to find the threat, neutralize said threat and proceed from there to give aid to the “civilians.” Fire Department personnel were also standing nearby.
As the day wore on, groups of deputies walked down the hill, took the positions in cover, fought through the live explosions, and received the comments and critique of their immediate supervisors before clearing off to allow the next group access to the training facility.
What is being taught?
An interesting portion of the training, according to Fraser, is that while it may hurt or appear similar to simulated games like paintball or airsoft, their version does not include a rule that if you’re shot, you’re out.
“There’s so much training that goes into what the human body can do after being shot,” said Fraser. “So, just because you’ve been shot, you don’t want to train your body like, ‘Oh, I’ve been shot, I’m dead, I’m out.’ No, you want your body to know you’re basically fighting for your life.”
In addition to getting deputies used to that idea, Fraser, who has participated in a number of drills and live situations, says there are a number of processes that occur as an involuntary reaction to these types of situations.
Those can include losing dexterity in your fingertips under the influence of adrenaline, your heart rate increasing exponentially or even having tunnel vision and momentarily losing your sense of hearing.
“You get something called ‘auditory exclusion,’ and you don’t hear all the sounds around you, and it’s basically like a period of deafness,” said Fraser, when explaining what happens chemically inside your body from her first-person perspective in that kind of situation. “That’s why they say many officers involved in shootings don’t hear their own guns.”
The tunnel vision, she adds, can get so dramatic that, even during simulations with live flashbangs and practice rounds flying at you at hundreds of feet per second, it requires you to turn your head left and right because of how limited your peripheral vision is.
Why is it important?
It’s important for law enforcement to know and have previously felt this feeling, Fraser said, because it starts suddenly and they need to be ready, through mental preparedness and already having the muscle memory in place to take over when the fight or flight decision comes to the forefront.
“The second you hear that anyone has a gun or you hear that there’s a shooter … instantly your heart rate will start increasing before you even put the car in drive, before you even start to respond.”
“Feeling that stress, hearing that active shooter call, and actually, experiencing it, so that when it does happen, it’s not the first time,” she added. “You know it’s really stressful but then they’re like, ‘OK, we’ve done this, this is what we did,’ and they can kind of keep a little bit of logic to them.’”
Particularly for the Santa Clarita Valley, these drills have been a mainstay for law enforcement training over the years, said Arriaga. But in light of the Saugus High School shooting in November 2019, they’ve taken on a whole new level of importance for those who protect the community.
“So these trainings have been going on well before the Saugus shooting, and with the Saugus shooting it helped us prepare for how to make entry into a building, how to search for a threat, how to render aid, offer triage and everything and such,” said Arriaga.
While the responses from the deputies were heroic and by the book on many accounts for Nov. 14, 2019, Arriaga said they’re always looking for ways to improve.
“We’ve looked back at the Saugus shooting, we’ve held debriefs, as far as what we could have done better, what we can do more, what we’ve always done great,” she said. “So, we’re always definitely looking back, and using that as an example, and making sure that, you know, we go even better and quicker in our response.”