Deafening gunshots that rang out in the ordinarily peaceful Washington County Courthouse frightened and flustered the office staff working inside, even though they had known for more than a week they would be part of an “active shooter” drill.
The Monday afternoon exercises were designed to prepare emergency responders, sheriff’s deputies and county officers workers on what to do if a shooter storms the courthouse or another catastrophic emergency happens.
Jacki Avolio, who works in the prothonotary’s office on the main floor, said the gunshots and realistic scenarios were scary, but it helped them learn how to react if the unimaginable happens.
“Being prepared is the best defense to stay alive,” said Avolio, who is an avid hunter, but was still rattled by the gunshots. “That’s half the battle to keep yourself alive.”
Joy Ranko, who also works in the prothonotary’s office, kept watching the clock waiting for the drill to start at 3 p.m. But when the “gunman” fired three blanks in succession near the office, Ranko took cover behind the front desk and saw a stranger standing just a few feet away. She still had goosebumps and was flustered moments after authorities apprehended the fake gunman.
“We’ll definitely be ready,” Ranko said.
And that was the point.
Sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, patrolmen and the county’s CERT team fanned out throughout the courthouse during multiple drills that were designed to help them stop an attacker. Waves of them flowed into the main concourse searching for the shooter and neutralizing him.
They learned from mistakes, too. At one point, the phone lines inside the courthouse were disconnected, forcing officers to improvise while calling others inside the building for help. Some prothonotary’s office workers also complained that they could not reach 911 or sheriff’s deputies during the first drill.
Tony Mosco, a member of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and one of the drill’s organizers, said it was crucial for them to learn from their mistakes to improve security and their response.
“That’s why we’re doing it again,” Mosco told the women in the prothonotary’s office.
The practice drill lasted nearly two hours, and county officials warned visitors about it throughout the day and placed signs around the courthouse. Still, some visitors were taken by surprise, and courthouse workers could be seen frantically running from the building.
After the first exercise, the courthouse became eerily quiet as most people had left. More shots rang out a few minutes later for the second run-through, and eventually the suspect was apprehended again.
“We got him,” a police officer shouted inside the building. “We got him in custody.”
But a few minutes later, they were prepared to do it once more.
“Let’s reset and do it again,” another officer said.
Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca suggested the practice drill after talking with other courthouse workers during the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts regional meeting in 2011. Members of the AOPC’s Southwestern Pennsylvania region brought up the idea of a drill and how to implement training for police officers and courtroom staff. It is believed to be the first such active shooter training exercise in a courthouse in Western Pennsylvania.
Monday’s exercise coincided with recent training that courthouse workers have undergone to help prepare contingency and security plans.