“This is necessary now”: First responders conduct mass-shooting drills at Denver-area churches

A pregnant woman in turquoise scrubs laid bleeding in the basement of Brave Church in Englewood, clutching a gunshot wound to her chest, begging for help. Nearby, another woman slumped against a wall, her face coated in blood, white shirt ripped and stained red.

First responders barged through the door, quickly scanning a room full of shooting victims, determining who needed the most immediate help — making decisions that could mean life or death.

Thankfully, it was all a drill, a real-time mass shooting scenario conducted Friday by the South Metro Fire and Rescue Authority. It was the first of nine sessions this month at local churches, an effort to help train more than 800 first responders across the Denver area.

“In the past, this may have felt optional,” said Ted Christopoulos, battalion chief for South Metro Fire. “This is necessary now.”

Friday’s training session had been in the works for eight months, said Eric Hurst, spokesman for South Metro Fire, which organized the exercises. But the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend that left 11 Jewish worshipers dead put the practice scenario in a new light.

“The timing was tragically ironic,” Hurst said, standing feet away from mock victims soaked in fake blood on the church floor. “It certainly makes it feel more uncomfortable. We know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.”

It’s necessary because it’s regular. Christopoulos guessed his team responds to roughly one active shooter incident a month. His firefighters bought ballistic gear a few years back, thinking they wouldn’t have to use it much. Now it’s standard procedure to don bulletproof protection.

On Friday morning, the first responders — which included EMTs, paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement officials — practiced bleeding control, communications, new standardized protocols and rescue operations for worst-case scenarios. These groups conduct training throughout the year, but this one is the largest and most complex, officials said.

Before simulating a real-time active shooter scenario, first responders went through various stations, getting hands-on practice responding to gunshot wounds on life-like dummies. At one station, EMTs and firefighters worked on dummies mimicking facial trauma, which involved cutting open the trachea to insert a breathing tube. They also went over proper response procedures, and best practices for dealing with the wounded.

As part of the active scenario, mock victims were transported by ambulances to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood. Surgeons at the hospital could then “operate” on the victims. The result: mimicking an entire run from shooting and response to lifesaving medical procedures.

South Metro Fire chose the church setting purposefully for the training, Hurst said. Houses of worship — much like schools, office parks and public venues — are deemed by law enforcement as “soft targets,” places that generally are open and lack substantial security.

Coloradans recall this type of tragedy that struck the state a decade ago.

Javier Gutierrez MD OB Hospitalist holds ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Javier Gutierrez MD OB Hospitalist holds the baby after Cynthia Middleton, perinatal Nurse Practitioner, cuts the cord in an emergency C-section simulation during a Hyper-Realistic immersive stress inoculation training at the Swedish Medical Center Nov. 2, 2018 in Englewood.

In December 2007, 24-year-old Matthew Murray opened fire at two churches — Youth With a Mission in Arvada and New Life Church in Colorado Springs — killing four people and wounding five others, before being shot by a security guard. He then killed himself. Murray had written numerous anti-Christian messages on websites leading up to the attack.

Mass shootings have occurred at houses of worship around the country in recent years. In 2017, a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others. Two years prior, a white supremacist opened fire at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine black worshipers, including a pastor.

Christopoulos said local units such as his are gleaning tactics and procedures used by the military in war-like situations. He also learned from past incidents, such as the Aurora theater shooting, when officers were transporting victims to the hospital in their own vehicles because ambulances had difficulty getting close enough to the scene.

“The key is relationships between agencies,” Christopoulos said. There needs to be practiced coordination between police officers and firefighters so that once “an area is safe, how quickly can we get in to rescue people?”