published Friday, February 15th, 2013

Chattanooga police train recreation staff on shootings (with videos)

Sgt. Mark Smeltzer talks to Chattanooga Parks and Recreation employees Thursday at the Police Service Center.
Sgt. Mark Smeltzer talks to Chattanooga Parks and Recreation employees Thursday at the Police Service Center.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
City parks and recreation employees receive crisis training
City of Chattanooga Parks and Recreation employees received preparedness training from the Chattanooga Police Department in the event of a disturbance or shooter at one of the city's recreation centers Thursday.

Mass shootings can happen anywhere. Ronald Drake knows this. He's watched national TV coverage like everyone else, seen the Batman fans escape from a Colorado movie theater after midnight and the teachers lead children from a Connecticut elementary school.

And as those scenes unfolded, Drake thought about the East Chattanooga Recreation Center, where he has served as facility manager since 1998. What if someone loaded a semiautomatic weapon and strolled through the front doors here? Of the about 150 people inside, Drake would be in charge.

"I just didn't know how we would handle something like that," he said.

On Thursday morning, Drake sat through more than two hours of training from the Chattanooga Police Department. Officers talked to Drake and about 50 other city recreation employees about what to do when facing an active shooter.

Drake, 52, said police showed videos of people thwarting active shooters and presented three simple strategies for handling such a situation. If they can, people should run away. If they can't run, they should hide. And if they can't hide, they should fight.

"It was some of the best training I've been to," Drake said. "And I've been in the Parks and Recreations Department for 30 years."

Locking doors inside the building and moving children to a secure location were among the strategies police advised rec center staff members to do in the event of a crisis.

"It's unfortunate that we've got to this point in society where we have to prepare for this," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said.

In light of recent mass shootings nationwide, Department of Parks and Recreation administrators wanted to boost training and supplement safety measures already in place, said Brian Smith, public relations coordinator for the department.

"This is a proactive approach," Smith said. "We are here to let community center staff, let our community staff managers, know and understand what the procedures are when working with the police department."

Dodd said the training included a history and case study of active shooters with profiles to help staff members know what to watch for.

"It allows them to build a plan of their own and train and prepare for something. We want everyone to be on the same page if we have to respond," Dodd said.

Sample plans are provided to organizations for them to adapt. During active shooter situations, everyone is asked to put their hands on their heads as police quickly locate a gunman.

If safety drills are conducted at the recreation centers, then children will know how to respond if police have to be called out, he added.

Officers used to be trained to form a perimeter around a structure to contain a shooter. Over the years the response has changed, Dodd said. Now police, even one or two officers, will enter a building to stop a gunman.

"We can't allow innocent people to be injured inside the building while waiting for a tactical team to arrive," he said.

Smith said the department's information systems staff is working to update and buy additional security cameras where needed.

"Cameras can be a preventive measure and aid in proscution, but an educated and informed staff in invaluable to those we serve," he said.

Some of the city's rec centers have been identified as areas where gang members hang out or where gang activity takes place. A gang assessment by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies found some of the centers are located in areas that are high in gang activity including Avondale, Eastdale and Washington Hills.

However, Smith said Thursday's training was not gang related.

Shooting tragedies could "happen in Hixson, Lookout Valley, North Chattanooga, that is, low-crime areas," he said. "We want to make sure we are all informed and prepared."

Staff writer Tyler Jett contributed to this report.

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