Police use tiny city to practice tackling big disasters

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CALIFORNIA – With a monstrous storm of historic proportions and a frightening number of horrific shootings, 2012 was a year that put the training of many American first responders to the test. Last week, more than 40 local law enforcement officers got an early jump on honing their disaster response skills in the New Year by attending intense training seminars at California University of Pennsylvania.


Inside a classroom in Helsel Hall, officers huddled around a tabletop model city packed full of doll-sized buildings and toy cars. Far from child’s play, the trainees are forced to make quick decisions on how best to use the incident command system to effectively coordinate emergency response efforts during complex disaster scenarios.


“I’d rather we sweat about these little cars than bleed on the street,” said instructor John Sakoian, a lieutenant for the Upper St. Clair police department.


The scenarios cover everything from a train derailment to a shooting and are the first module in Sakoian’s two-day Command Excellence program. With 40 years of law enforcement experience, Sakoian keeps the exercises fast-paced and challenging to make sure that even the most seasoned veterans are on their toes. He even tipped his hat to members of the news media in attendance for adding an extra element of stress to the training.


As for the second day of training, officers practiced covert tactics using nonlethal, air-powered firearms during force-on-force exercises related to active shooter response.


“We have to prepare ourselves beyond the normal career – mentally, physically, emotionally – for a violent act in our society,” Sakoian said.


At the core of Sakoian’s program are what he calls the five V’s: vision, virtue, vocation, valor and victory. The former appears to be a key to the training seminars, which focused heavily on planning and preparedness. Sakoian said he spends more than an hour lecturing on virtue and character alone.


The program took shape after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when Sakoian was commissioned to train officers in his department to break from the norm and enter a building to help people during a disaster when the practice at the time had been to circle the wagons until SWAT teams and the bomb squad arrived.


“We were training people to go in when others were staying out,” he said.


The logic behind these new techniques became clear after the tragic shooting at Columbine High School four years later, Sakoian said. Since his department was ahead of the curve, he was asked by the South Hills Council of Governments to train hundreds of police officers spread over its 19 municipalities on disaster response. Sakoian has since trained more than 700 police officers and received eight years worth of police grants from the state.


Earlier in the week, officers from Cal U. and two of its sister universities, Clarion and Slippery Rock, attended a session for free thanks to a grant from Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.


The second session hosted a mix of municipal and school police as well as probation officers, including several from the Washington County Adult Probation Office. Other departments with officers present at the training included those from California Borough, Castle Shannon, Forest Hills, Braddock Hills, Clairton, Beaver Falls, Keystone Oaks School District, Point Park University and the Allegheny County sheriff’s office.


“We try to train everybody in the criminal justice community. That’s the ultimate goal,” said Cal U. police Chief Robert Downey Jr. “We’re all working on the same page.”


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