Shooting exercise exposes vulnerabilities

Van Zandt VA Medical Center stages attack to evaluate, prepare for real emergency

From left, Van Zandt VA Police Officer Wallace Litzinger, Allegheny Township Assistant Chief Mike Robison and Van Zandt VA Police Officer Matt Shontofski engage “active shooter” Trinitie Applas, Blair County deputy sheriff, during an active shooter drill on Thursday at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

During an active shooter drill at Van Zandt VA Medical Center on Thurs­day, hospital spokesman Shaun Shenk, one of about 20 people in the “incident command center,” realized he didn’t have his laptop after discussion turned to his responsibilities during a real attack.

Shenk had his smartphone, but it would be far easier to write a news release, put out Facebook notifications and subsequent social media updates from a computer.

As he left the command center, he thought about how he could be better prepared and realized he could keep a laptop in a “go bag” to grab when a real emergency occurred — or better yet, keep a laptop stocked in the incident command center.

Thursday’s drill — a blend of playacting and discussion — was designed to generate those kinds of realizations, Shenk said.

“We tried to simulate a potential real world event mixed with conversation” about what would work and what should be done better, he said.

The event, in which three “bad guys” with imitation handguns that made gunlike noises invaded the administration area of the seventh floor and began shooting, involved employees of the hospital, Garvey Manor and the Hol­li­daysburg Veterans Home, officers from the Blair County Sher­iff’s Department and the Logan and Allegheny Township police departments and officials from the Blair County Emer­gen­cy Management Agency and AMED.

At the command center, Van Zandt Associate Director Derek Coughenour presided as another official received information from law enforcement types and others on the seventh and nearby floors.

“We’re all kind of in the dark,” Coughenour said at one point. “I’m assuming there are still assailants in the building.”

Sometime later, an outside agency representative, evidently following a script, announced that the “threat had been neutralized,” that rescue teams had deployed and that the fifth and sixth floors were also crime scenes.

Not long after that, word came on the radio that there were 10 casualties.

There was talk about evacuating 40 patients to Garvey Manor and about shutting down the hospital’s regular functions — except for a handful of acute patients on one floor.

The rescue team concept is a new one that has spread nationwide, according to Logan Township Police Chief Dave Reese.

Rescue teams consist of ambulance workers accompanied by police, for protection, who respond to victims to perform triage as soon as they can do it safely, Reese said.

Before the advent of rescue teams, ambulance workers would be kept at bay, and people who’d been shot were bleeding out and dying, Reese said.

In the incident command center, there was tension and uncertainty that would be present in abundance during a real shooting.

In the seventh-floor hallway, prior to the start of the exercise — public address announcements stressed “exercise,” so there would be no false alarm.

Van Zandt secretary Kerin Stefanko, dressed in a bloody overshirt, said her instruction sheet, in a protective plastic cover, had her hyperventilating, dizzy, confused and unable to catch her breath.

Stefanko, a member of the hospital’s emergency management committee, later showed up at incident command, still wearing her bloody overshirt — although she took it off before long.

The drill showed how a variety of community agencies and institutions — “community partners” — can help Van Zandt do what it needs “to make sure we get to keep carrying on the mission of taking care of veterans,” Shenk said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.