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Posted: 08/13/14

TRAINING DAY. Above, the video wall at COMTEC displays multiple camera angles from within Powell Middle School during a SWAT training exercise. At left, members of Macomb County's SWAT team enter the school. At right, a tank used by the SWAT team. The SWAT held hostage scenario training on Aug. 6.

(Observer photos by Chris Gray)

COMTEC improves hostage situation response

SWAT team lauds use of cameras during training at Powell Middle School

Observer Staff Writer
      A shooter entering a school and opening fire is a nightmare no one wants to see happen in their community.
       Unfortunately, that scenario has played out throughout the U.S., prompting Macomb County and Romeo Community Schools to take steps that will ensure law enforcement can coordinate a rapid response.
       School and county officials gathered at the county's $13.5 million Communications and Technology Center, COMTEC, on Aug. 6 to show how tapping into a school's security cameras can improve the response to a hostage situation.
       At Powell Middle School, the county's SWAT team set up the scenario of a man armed with a shotgun entering the building. About 17 miles away in the COMTEC facility, officials watched the scenario play out in real time on a 50-by-20 feet video wall.
       In a real-life scenario, commanders or dispatch would communicate information via radio to officers on the scene, such as the location of the suspect and if there are hostages.
       County Executive and former Sheriff Mark Hackel said the ability to access the cameras will enhance how law enforcement reacts, as the traditional response is to use the schematics of a building to determine where a suspect is and how to gain access to them.
       "What a tremendous advantage for the eyes and ears of a dispatcher, the emergency responders, to be in a room watching what is going on and talking to their tactical unit as they're entering their school," he said.
       Hackel said the county would not monitor schools that sign up. Access would only be granted to COMTEC during an incident through a district's technology department.
       "We have a feeling that we're going to see many of our school districts here in Macomb County be very much involved in the partnerships with us," he said.
       Emergency Management Director Vicki Wolber said it took a couple hours to work out the logistics of COMTEC patching into the cameras. She said this highlighted the need for schools to partner up with the county ahead of time to work out any bugs.
       "It's an easy system to operate and we can have immediate access within a few seconds," she said. "If we don't have that accessibility beforehand, it's really not useful to us at all."
       She said other uses aside a shooter scenario includes monitoring the impact of severe weather like tornadoes.
Shooter scenario

       When the exercise began, the mood inside COMTEC became somber as officials watched the gunman shoot the man playing the principal at the entrance of he building, then proceed inside to shoot two more people representing students. No actual discharge of weapons took place.
       The screen switched to a different camera, revealing the gunman entering the media center and taking hostages.
       The feed then showed the SWAT team's tank and vans rumble down the sidewalk to the entrance of the school, where they then deployed. Within seconds the team entered the building, located the gunman and took him down, avoiding any further injuries or casualties.
       Sgt. Jeff Budzynowski, who led the team, said they were able to identify the location of the threat sooner compared to a typical response.
       "We're highly-trained SWAT operators, but at the same time, if we don't have information or can't see into the facility, we have to basically clear the facility one room, one hall at a time," he said. "That is very time-consuming, and people could be getting hurt."
       Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said the Columbine High School tragedy changed how law enforcement responds to active shooter situations, and COMTEC's ability to access the cameras will improve that response.
       `The main goal is to enter the building and neutralize the threat before more people get hurt," he said.
Real response

       Wickersham said in a real situation, road patrol units would be the first to respond in three to eight minutes, while a SWAT team would take about half an hour. Deputies are trained with similar tactics for hostage situations.
       The exercise did more than show off COMTEC's capabilities. The SWAT team learned that despite a state-of-the-art system, their radios didn't work inside the school. The county will work with the district on the matter.
       "That is why you do these things . . . to make sure equipment works, make sure communication works," Wickersham said.
       When the scenario wrapped up, Romeo Superintendent Nancy Campbell was visibly shaken despite knowing it was a training exercise.
       "That's our school, there are 740 kids there" when school is in session, she said. "You never think this is going to happen, you never want to believe that it's even a possibility, and I think this makes it real."
       Even so, she said she was happy to be a part of something that will increase safety.
       "What today is all about is another measure of safety, another partnership with our community, our county, our law enforcement that have always been with us every step of the way," she said.

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