Up to 20 Kagome employees were either lying still as if dead, struggling to move like injured victims or hiding in between boxes Thursday morning at the Los Banos food plant as emergency response teams moved to rescue them.
One by one, multiple rescue task forces made up of police, fire and emergency medical services personnel helped or carried them out of a dangerous situation while law enforcement trained to contained a shooter in the building.
But while the blood, torn shirts and bullet wounds on the employees seemed lifelike, they were really fakes created by the Atwater High School drama class. And the whole situation was part of an exercise held by agencies across Merced County.
A total of 115 participants including police, fire, EMS and role-players from Kagome conducted a two-hour exercise that put the communication, planning and execution skills of first responders to the test.
The exercise culminated three years of planning and strategizing by agencies across the county to prepare for the worst types of violent situations.
“I think all the training these past three years has led to a point where multiple agencies can work together well,” said Los Banos Fire Chief Tim Marrison, the incident commander for the scenario.
The agencies participating included, among others, police, fire, probation and emergency service departments from Los Banos, Gustine, Merced, Merced County, Merced College, California Fish and Wildlife, state parks, Cal Fire and Riggs ambulance service.
While the exercise tested the ability of each emergency responder to do his or her task during a rescue operation, the main objectives were to practice interagency communication and working together in groups.
Marrison thought those objectives were met exceptionally well on Thursday.
“I think all our concerns were addressed today, and it alleviated any fears,” Marrison said. “I think we accomplished our goal.”
The scenario Thursday started out with a shooter who had killed or wounded 15 to 20 employees.
A 911 call came in of a violent situation at the food plant. Gunshots rang outside a warehouse as Los Banos police arrived and two officers engaged the shooter.
The officers cornered the shooter in the plant’s shipping office, but they noticed several injured employees in the building and called for emergency response.
That’s when more police, fire and EMS agencies arrived from jurisdictions across the county, establishing a command post to coordinate efforts and figure out the best way to rescue employees who were either injured or hiding.
“The main focus of today was the teams going into the warm zone to rescue (victims),” said Jeremy Rahn, coordinator for the Merced County Office of Emergency Services. A “warm zone” is when an area has been scanned for threats, but not with a thorough sweep.
While a preliminary team swept the warehouse for any threats, teams of paramedics and firefighters paired up with police officers to bring victims outside the food plant.
Once outside, the teams communicated with hospitals to coordinate medical transports. The exercise ended there because it was focused on the rescue operations.
Police, fire and EMS officials tasked as evaluators tagged along with the teams to see how they handled the exercise. Also, observers watched the scene unfold from a viewing area.
After the exercise ended, all the participants gathered in the warehouse to discuss how it went. Emergency responders split from Kagome employees, who reviewed their own plans on dealing with a violent incident.
Some employees said the experience was exhilarating and informative.
“It was kind of surreal waiting for them to come,” said Shannon Hunt, who was “hit” by a bullet in the chest. “You really learn how it works and what to expect when something like that happens.”
Kagome President and CEO Luis De Oliveira said it was tough walking through and seeing several of his employees lying lifeless on the floor.
“But we’ve been working on this for weeks, not just for this drill,” he said. “We’re one of the largest employers in the community. So it’s important to prepare for a situation like this.”