Training exercise tests town's readiness for emergency situations

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Chris Gomez fires a blank round from a revolver in the Black Mountain Town Hall, Nov. 19, as he plays the role of an active shooter in a training exercise designed to test the town's response to emergency situations.

Nov. 19 started out like most fall days at the Black Mountain Town Hall. 

Public service crews were blowing leaves into piles on Midland Avenue as employees inside the building were beginning their workdays. 

Suddenly, a simulation of a deadly scenario, which has played out with increasing frequency around the country in recent years, began to unfold. 

A trio of loud bangs from blank revolver rounds, fired by an actor playing the role of an armed assailant, initiated a realistic exercise testing the Town of Black Mountain’s response to an active shooter situation. 

“In light of recent mass shootings around the country, law enforcement will typically evaluate the lessons learned from those events,” said Black Mountain Police Chief Shawn Freeman, prior to the two-hour simulation that shut down the Town Hall on a Tuesday morning. “What we’re doing is holding an exercise that allows us to evaluate our response and look at potential improvements that can be made.”

Planning for the elaborate simulation began in the summer, following a shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal center in May, which left 12 city government employees dead and four wounded. 

The training exercise, organized by BMPD, was similar to several that have been held throughout Buncombe County in recent months, but it was distinct in a significant way.

Black Mountain police respond to a training exercise at Town Hall on Nov. 19. The drill was designed to evaluate the town's readiness for emergency situations.

“We did not inform town employees in advance that we would be conducting this drill,” Freeman said. “This gave us an opportunity to see the true reaction of various departments that could be impacted by this type of scenario, from public services to administration.”

The BMPD Special Response Team was formed in 2017 to give the department the ability to deploy a tactical unit to address potentially dangerous events. SRT leader Jon McDonald assisted in organizing the Town Hall training. 

“We’re evaluating town staff’s plans and responses to an active attacker, we’re evaluating our Special Response Team and we’re incorporating mutual aid agreements with the fire department and outside agencies,” he said.

The department notified emergency responders around the region of the drill, and BMPD officers were alerted that they were responding to a training exercise. Patrol officers and SRT members checked in with Lieutenants Rob Austin and Joe Kidd at the police station, where their weapons were unloaded and wrapped with blue tape. 

“This helps train our officers for a realistic call, so it allows us the chance to truly evaluate everyone across the board,” McDonald said. “All of these people are going into this without knowing what was coming, so we take safety and the scripts very seriously to ensure that the environment is controlled.”

The department enlisted the assistance of Chris Gomez, who has assisted in multiple SRT training exercises, to play the role of the aggressor. He was given a script containing responses to various reactions from staff. 

“The script determines every action for Chris,” McDonald said. “Certain responses will trigger a scripted escalation and everything he says or does comes directly from that script, which we reviewed with him before the drill.”

Town Manager Josh Harrold, Mayor Don Collins were briefed on the drill and Black Mountain Fire Chief Scottie Harris and Deputy Chief John Wilson assisted with coordination. 

Black Mountain Police Chief Shawn Freeman works with an officer during an active shooter and hostage situation training exercise in Town Hall.

McDonald escorted Gomez to Town Hall, where they entered the front door of the building, interrupting a department head meeting. The SRT leader informed the staff that they were participating in a drill before Town Clerk Angela Reece was led to her office and given a placard indicating that she was a fatality in the simulation. 

Gomez then fired blank rounds near the door of the administration offices, prompting responses from town staff, who had completed an active shooter training in recent weeks. 

“They have all been trained to avoid, deny or defend,” McDonald said. “They should avoid the shooter at all costs, but if they are unable to do so, they should deny entry when they can. If they are unable to do either of those things, they must defend themselves until help arrives.”

Eleven town employees were moved into the board room, where they received placards indicating injuries suffered as the active threat drill transitioned into a hostage situation. 

“We have three FBI certified hostage negotiators on staff, and this drill provided an opportunity to utilize the training they’ve received and sharpen their skills,” Freeman said. 

SRT members swept the building upon entry, using sights, sounds and smells to pinpoint the location of the threat. After establishing verbal contact with Gomez, the team dropped a phone near the door of the boardroom to allow contact with a negotiator. 

“I’ll only pick it up if you leave,” Gomez responded to the SRT through the closed doors. “Now get out.”

The phone was used to establish a line of communication between the negotiator and Gomez, who began making scripted demands once the call was connected. 

Black Mountain police clear offices in Town Hall during an active shooter simulation on Nov. 19.

The role player escalated the situation while making demands, and as shots rang out from the boardroom, SRT members gained entry and subdued him. 

As officers worked to secure the scene, the exercise allowed Freeman, McDonald, Austin and Kidd to evaluate radio communications between department personnel. 

“We wanted to see if the responding officers were using good judgment, clear and concise communication and working effectively as a team to prevent any further loss of life or injury,” McDonald said. “This also gave us a chance to see if we were utilizing our medical personnel effectively and see if there were any adjustments to be made to our policies and procedures in the future.”

The exercise was the largest conducted by the department since the police and fire departments partnered to add three Emergency Medical Technicians to the SRT. 

“Our fire and police chiefs have a great working relationship and they’ve strengthened the bond between the two departments,” McDonald said. “This is an example of that, and these three EMTs deploy with our team. Their role is to keep us in the fight and they provide valuable medical knowledge that allows us to better treat injuries once the situation is under control.”

EMTs embedded in the response team undergo the same training as their law enforcement counterparts, according to McDonald. 

“Those SRT medics have been a huge addition to this team since they came on about six months ago,” he said. “They are required to participate in monthly training with our team, so they go where we go and how we go.”

Special Response Team members approach Black Mountain Town Hall on Midland Avenue, Nov. 19, in a training exercise simulating an active shooter and hostage situation.

The Town Hall drill was the latest in a series of exercises involving the SRT, which has conducted training in Swannanoa Valley schools, colleges, businesses and other institutions. 

“We train twice a month for different scenarios,” McDonald said. “As soon as the call goes out, our team members are required to respond in less than an hour, and we average a much quicker response time than that."

Following the conclusion of the training, town personnel reviewed an extensive report of the exercise in an effort to identify areas of improvement. 

“Once we debrief, we can work with the town manager to make Town Hall more secure,” Freeman said. “We intend to make it a harder target, but we will extend that plan to all of the town buildings and implement strategies to do the same.”

Had the scenario been an emergency, additional steps would have been taken during the department’s response, according to the chief.

“If this was a true event, we would have evacuated the homes nearby, the neighboring Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry and placed area schools on lockdown,” Freeman said. “There would have been responders from mutual aid departments around the area, and a warning to residents to avoid the area.”