SPRING HILL — Police, victims and bystanders knew it was all a drill.
But Friday, everything from the two gunmen who leapt from a Ford Durango and raced into Explorer K-8 with rifles in the air to the hysterical victims with bullet wounds felt pretty real.
That was the point.
A mock school shooting staged at the school Friday by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office marked the department's first attempt to train and evaluate its deputies in a live-shooting scenario.
Although deputies have been taught how to respond to a situation like Friday's, authorities say the hands-on aspect — with teachers, students, police, EMTs and the media — taught them more.
"This was just controlled pandemonium, which is what we expected," sheriff's Lt. Matt Lillibridge said afterward. "And in real life, you'd have 1,500 kids inside instead of 40."
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As the exercise began, the intercom crackled to life.
"This is a lockdown — I repeat, a lockdown. We have two shooters on campus."
A squad of four deputies sprinted toward the entrance, guns drawn.
As they entered the school, other deputies outside set up a mobile command center. Ambulances and fire trucks from Spring Hill Fire Rescue set up triage centers in the shadow of the trucks to shield victims from possible gunfire.
Victims and students stumbled out the front door as the distant pop-pop-pop of gunfire and high-pitched screams echoed from the second and third floors.
Reporters who placed calls to Explorer principal John Stratten were told the phone line must be kept clear for "emergency purposes."
Guns loaded with blanks, smoke machines, fake blood on the linoleum and dummies that had to be dragged outside made the experience more realistic, said Thomas Quisenberry, co-founder of Patriot Services, a Detroit-based company that provides training scenarios related to public safety and schools.
Patriot Services created and staged Friday's scenario.
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Funding for the exercise, which cost the Sheriff's Office about $38,000, came from a state grant aimed at preventing domestic terrorism.
Mark Tolbert, the emergency management coordinator for the Sheriff's Office, said most of the funding went to Patriot Services.
Their training plan, which included three planning meetings, two simulation discussions and one drill for each of two shifts of deputies, was chosen out of 10 bids more than four months ago.
The rest of the $38,000 went toward mock weapons, triage equipment and other supplies.
The creation of these training scenarios stemmed from how law enforcement responded to the 1999 Columbine shooting, Lillibridge said.
Back then, law enforcement waited for a SWAT team to secure the building before going in. "But now we know you can't sit around and wait," Lillibridge said. "You can't afford to."
The new system is called Immediate Action Rapid Deployment. Deputies gather a squad of four and enter the building immediately, moving toward the sound of gunfire. Reinforcements enter as needed.
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Patriot Services provided some of the effects during the drill. But the Sheriff's Office did some of it alone, including the victims' makeup.
Quisenberry said victims sporting gunshot wounds, bloody clothes, bruises and even broken arms looked impressively convincing.
"Hernando County did a Hollywood-quality job of staging this drill," Quisenberry said, pointing at a woman with a bullet wound in the center of her forehead. "We couldn't have done it better."
Evaluators, who wore red shirts and patrolled during the drill, called the deputies in for a "hot wash," or breakdown of what went well and what didn't, after the drill ended.
Not everything went according to plan, Lillibridge said.
Halfway through the scenario, deputies discovered they couldn't get the attention of teachers by banging on doors because the school's highly soundproofed walls muffled the noise.
"But that's what practice is for," Lillibridge said. "There's no room for mistakes if this were happening in real life."
Reach Laura J. Nelson at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.