Campus police and local emergency workers are planning an "active shooter" exercise at the University of Central Arkansas, with every reasonable effort made to present those responsible for campus safety with a realistic worst-case scenario.

In the exercise, scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon, as many as 60 student actors will occupy Minton Hall and a simulated classroom there, and one actor who will come into the building intending to kill as many of them as possible.

Lt. Rhonda Swindle of the University of Central Arkansas Police Department wouldn’t say who this "shooter" would be. UCAPD officers won’t know either, Swindle said, adding that the participants, observers and police/emergency personnel can be assured that this person has a law enforcement background and is well qualified to responsibly handle a weapon loaded with "blank" ammunition.

The shooter will be using "blanks," Swindle said, because the noise and smell of a firearm can help law enforcement officers find an active shooter inside a building. As is standard precaution when using "blank" ammunition, she added, "at no time will the weapon actually be pointed at a victim."

When the first shots are fired, some student actors will make cell phone calls to UCAPD, and UCAPD dispatch will send officers on normal patrol or at normal stations to the area. The only thing that will be out of the ordinary for these officers, Swindle said, is that any weapon brought into the exercise perimeter will have been checked by a weapons specialist to ensure that it contains no live rounds.

Swindle said that the officers and UCAPD’s investigators will arrive to find a chaotic scene. Some student actors will have fled or be running out the doors as they arrive, others will be hiding and others will be "injured," having had makeup applied — including stage blood — to simulate wounds. These "casualties" will be taken out of harm’s way and to a simulated MEMS triage area and/or by ambulance to the Student Health Building. For the purposes of the exercise, this building will be standing in for Conway Regional Medical Center, though in a real-world worst-case scenario, casualties would be transported to Conway Regional.

It has also been arranged for UCAPD’s phone system to be inundated with calls in the hours after the "shooting," and UCA journalism students and members of the media will be handled at the scene in a similar way as they would in a real-world scenario.

Some student actors will know part of the "script" of the exercise, and in interviewing these actors during the course of the exercise officers and detectives will have set before them a simulated investigation. The shooter has even been assigned a motive, Swindle said.

The shooter will be a person who "blends in" with the students, and who he or she is may or may not be readily apparent, according to Swindle. The officers arriving on the scene won’t know if they will need to neutralize a gun-wielding and possibly suicidal shooter in or near the building, identify him or her from among the students still in the area or start looking for a shooter who has left the scene, she said. 

In 2007 UCAPD accepted 13 semiautomatic (not automatic or "machine gun") AR-15 rifles donated to UCA by local businesses in light of the Virginia Tech. shooting, and officers responding to the exercise will likely choose to carry them. The rifles caused some controversy among students in the months after they were delivered, and facebook.com Web pages were set up by students for and against their adoption. Swindle responded on both facebook.com Web pages in 2007, stating that if officers are to respond to an active-shooter situation with full effect, they would need the ability to fire long range distances with "extreme accuracy," which is beyond the capability of the types of handgun commonly carried by law enforcement.

Swindle added that she has heard little opposition to the rifles since the October 2008 murder of two students outside of Arkansas Hall.

The exercise will also be a full-scale test of the various emergency notification systems installed in response to the communications problems that arose on the night of 2008’s campus shooting. Tests of the text message/e-mail/phone call system were conducted to the satisfaction of UCA officials in 2008 and 2009, and an audible siren-type system has been installed to alert those out of doors. Updates on the exercise will be posted on UCA’s Web site, www.uca.edu.

For the purposes of the exercise, a perimeter will be set up in the area of Minton Hall and the student health building. Campus activities outside of this area may be disrupted somewhat by emergency vehicle traffic, but classes and activities should proceed as normal, Swindle said.

Agencies and groups planning to participate in the exercise include the UCA President’s executive staff, UCAPD, student services, student housing, student health, counseling services, journalism department, theatre/drama department, nursing department, physical plant, Faulkner County Office of Emergency Management, Conway Police Department, Conway Fire Department, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, and MEMS.

Swindle said that coordinating this exercise has been "definitely the most involved exercise I’ve ever participated in."

Education and emergency management officials from around the state have planned to attend the exercise as observers. A similar exercise was recently conducted at Harding University, Swindle said, but she said she didn’t know of any exercise "of this magnitude" having taken place in Arkansas.

(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached at 505-1238 or by E-mail at joe.lamb@thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit.)