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355th SFS Airmen join SWAT training exercise

Senior Airman Brian Batema (right) holds the door open for Staff Sgt. Joshua Sharloken, Staff Sgt. Waylon Mitchell and Tech. Sgt. Jeff Ward, all from the 355th Security Forces Squadron here, so they can quickly enter the cafeteria and confront a hostile gunman during a training exercise at Lowell H. Smith Middle School here April 19. Using paintball handguns,  trainers from the Tucson Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics Team taught members of several law enforcement agencies how to respond to an armed assailant in a school setting. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jake Richmond)

Senior Airman Brian Batema (right) holds the door open for Staff Sgt. Joshua Sharloken, Staff Sgt. Waylon Mitchell and Tech. Sgt. Jeff Ward, all from the 355th Security Forces Squadron here, so they can quickly enter the cafeteria and confront a hostile gunman during a training exercise at Lowell H. Smith Middle School here April 19. Using paintball handguns, trainers from the Tucson Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics Team taught members of several law enforcement agencies how to respond to an armed assailant in a school setting. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jake Richmond)

Mr. Kevin Johnson (right), a trainer for the 355th Security Forces Squadron here, conducts a post-exercise training briefing April 19 with Staff Sgt. Waylon Mitchell, Senior Airman Brian Batema, Tech. Sgt. Jeff Ward and Staff Sgt. Joshua Sharloken, all from the 355th SFS. Trainers from the Tucson Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics Team came to Lowell H. Smith Middle School here and taught members of several law enforcement agencies how to respond to an armed assailant in a school setting. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jake Richmond)

Mr. Kevin Johnson (right), a trainer for the 355th Security Forces Squadron here, conducts a post-exercise training briefing April 19 with Staff Sgt. Waylon Mitchell, Senior Airman Brian Batema, Tech. Sgt. Jeff Ward and Staff Sgt. Joshua Sharloken, all from the 355th SFS. Trainers from the Tucson Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics Team came to Lowell H. Smith Middle School here and taught members of several law enforcement agencies how to respond to an armed assailant in a school setting. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jake Richmond)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Five Airmen and two civilians from the 355th Security Forces Squadron here trained with members of the Tucson Police Department, Sahuarita Police Department and University of Arizona Police Department in an exercise conducted at the Lowell H. Smith Middle School building here April 19.

The exercise, administered and supervised by TPD Special Weapons and Tactics Team trainers, taught the participants how to handle a scenario in which an armed suspect enters the school and begins shooting at people.

After the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, the TPD SWAT Team began creating a new training program for first responders in a similar situation. Sgt. David Azuelo, a TPD SWAT Team member and one of the developers of the program, said that the Columbine shootings revealed a flaw in common police procedures. In the past, the first officers on the scene were trained to stand by and wait for the SWAT Team.

Now, through specialized SWAT training, first responders are taught to do exactly the opposite.

"What we try to press on (the trainees) is: How many people can die in 10 seconds?'" Sergeant Azuelo said. "We essentially teach our officers to do whatever it takes to get to the bad guy and stop him from killing innocent people."

Sergeant Azuelo said there are enough recent examples of school shootings to illustrate the program's importance for any law enforcement agency. Therefore, he said, TPD routinely invites other local agencies to participate in the exercises.

"When they offered this training up, we jumped on it," said Mr. Kevin Johnson, a 355th SFS trainer. "We could be faced with a shooting incident in any mass-gathering location on any installation around the world."

Mr. Johnson said D-M security forces personnel have trained with TPD several times before, but the SWAT experience was unique.

First, groups of four or five participants put on protective SWAT gear. Then, the real-time scenario began with a dispatcher's radio call alerting officers to a suspect threatening to bring a gun into the school.

At that point, the school's loud speakers began blaring recorded sounds of screaming children. The trainees were instructed to run to a nearby squad car, drive to the front of the school, and then - guns drawn - simply follow their eyes and ears to the source of the danger.

The preplanned course forced the trainees to navigate through indoor and outdoor corridors, a classroom, a library, and a cafeteria. In each room, the trainees were confronted by distressed "victims," some of whom said they were injured and demanded attention.

At various points of the course, harmless cardboard explosives were detonated by training facilitators. The loud noise and resulting smoke was intended to startle and disorient the trainees, Sergeant Azuelo said. The SWAT trainers also followed the groups, barking instructions from start to finish.

"The most difficult part was hearing, with all of the explosions and the victims' screaming," said Senior Airman Alan Batema of the 355th SFS.

Given the current high rates of deployments, Airman Batema said Air Force security forces mostly train for air base defense, which demands a vigilant, protective posture. He said the more aggressive mindset taught by the SWAT trainers was challenging to adopt at first, but it was a positive experience.

"It reminds you to never be complacent," Airman Batema said. "Even though there's a high level of security already in place (on an Air Force Base), it's always good to be prepared for unusual circumstances."