ST. PETERSBURG — Men, women, children and seniors shuffled onto the padded workout floor, the clock hit 6:30 p.m., and it was time to start.
The Thursday class began like any other at the gym — with a warmup. But the 70 participants were in for more than exercise.
Shots and screams rang out across the stuffy gym. Men with guns ran toward the floor.
"Where are the police?" asks Chris Sutton, one of the shooters, lowering a fake gun and ending the first of many real-life simulation drills he would put the group through. "They aren't here, and they still wouldn't be if this was real."
Organizations have offered courses similar to Sutton's active-shooter response class, but he says public demand is at an all-time high after recent mass shootings across the country and around the world. Community courses are popping up everywhere, and quick tips can be found across the Web — including on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's website.
"You turn on the news, and you hear about it again and again," instructor Matt DiPietro says. "It's always in peoples' faces, so they have questions about it, they want information."
As founder of the class and its national parent company, COBRA Self-Defense Systems, Sutton says he believes every person — regardless of age, sex, size and strength — needs to know how to be their own first responder. He started teaching COBRA, or Combat Objective Battle Ready Applications, in the early 2000s but over the past several weeks has offered it for free because so many locals called looking for the training.
"I think people are catching on that this isn't going away," Sutton tells the Tampa Bay Times. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando "wasn't the first, it won't be the last and it's not going to be the worst. We just want to do what we can to give people a chance should they get into a situation like this."
William Duncan, whose daughter works as a trainer at MA Fitness, at 4400 34th St. N, says he signed up for the class because he wants to be prepared to help others if he is ever caught in a shooting.
"If I know what to do, I can be less afraid and think clearly so I can help people," says Duncan, 58. "My name, William, means 'determined guardian,' and I do my best to live up to that."
He was joined by 15-year-old Abcdi Wilson, who moved to Madeira Beach from Colorado just after the Pulse shooting.
"Knowing something like that happened so close to where I was moving was definitely a wakeup call," she says.
Sutton, who worked as a law enforcement officer with Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Largo Police Department from 1999 to 2006 and earned black belts in multiple martial arts programs before creating his business, calls the program a "modified police academy for regular people." It welcomes children.
"If you're in the room with an active shooter, everyone is the same, and everyone has to have a plan," he says.
Sutton teaches the class in 15 steps outlining what to do during what he calls the "critical window," or the time between when the shooter starts firing and when police arrive on scene.
"We have plans for when a Category 5 (hurricane) comes to Florida, for if a cruise ship goes down," he says. "This is our standard preparedness plan for the average unarmed person in a room with an active shooter."
The first step, he says, is exit awareness, or knowing where the exits are inside any building.
"Do not be a hero. Find the exits and get out immediately," Sutton tells the class.
The next few steps focus on how to move under gunfire, hide from a shooter, escort children and loved ones to safety, and shield vital organs.
Sutton illustrates some steps by choosing volunteers to take turns posing as a shooter reloading while others, posing as victims, try to run, hide or attack.
In the next steps, Sutton explains how to properly engage a gunman, should a person be unable to escape the building. He teaches the group how to make what he calls "stack teams," a group of people hidden and huddled together, ready to pummel a shooter when he or she least expects it.
Finally, he teaches the group how to fake death, a tactic he says can be used as a last resort, when attempts to escape and take down a shooter have failed.
Although Sutton's free classes are over, other organizations in the area seem to be picking up on the public interest. St. Petersburg police Officer Rodney Tower, who is trained and certified in rapid response tactics, will offer a similar course July 28.
Tower says the training will be more lecture-style, not hands-on, and will focus on teaching people how to remove themselves from a situation and find safety. He's been doing smaller classes for the past 1 ½ years, but decided to do a bigger class this month because so many are looking for training.
"People are having to face reality when they look at Orlando. It's literally in our backyard," Tower says. "The days of thinking it won't happen to you are unfortunately over, and although overall odds (it will happen) are small, people still need to prepare."
Chris Grollnek, a nationally recognized expert on active-shooter tactics and a retired police officer and tactical team member, says that while active-shooter preparedness courses can be helpful, instructors should be sure to teach responsibly, and participants should do their research.
"For some of these instructors to say they can teach somebody in a two-hour class how to take down a shooter is ridiculous and inappropriate," he says. "We need to focus on teaching people how to survive an active shooter, not attack one. We need to tell people to run the other way."
Roommates Susan Belyea, 58, and Brandi Winans, 66, says the shooting in Orlando motivated them to sign up for Sutton's class. They say it made them realize they may not always be as safe as they thought, that mass shootings can happen anywhere.
"I figure the more wisdom I have, the better," Belyea says. "I don't want to break down in fear. I want to take in all the wisdom I can with what's going on in this world."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.