By Travis Kellar
PITTSTON — More than 30 law enforcement professionals assembled inside Pittston Area Middle School on Thursday with two words on their minds: active shooter.
The high-powered gathering was not in response to an actual incident, but the first installment of a two-day training session for those who could be on the front lines if one were to occur.
“It’s important to have our officers trained and prepared in entering situations like this, and it’s not just school events,” Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said.
“Something like this, an active shooter event, can happen at any moment, anywhere,” she said.
The course, conducted by Evolution Ordinance and Consulting LLC drew local police officers from Pittston, Hughestown and Jenkins Township, as well as attendees from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, FBI and the Luzerne County Sheriff’s Office.
Thursday was an instruction day for officers. The presentation included techniques for addressing the threat of an active shooter, including what equipment to keep in their cars, how to move through a building or steps for the initial response to the scene.
Friday, officers returned to the school to take part in live exercises in which they practiced responding to an active shooter.
“An active shooter situation is something that is extremely dynamic,” said Hughestown Police Chief Jeff Balut, who was one of the trainers.
“Officers need to be just as dynamic in their response and be able to think on their feet and be accustomed and comfortable with communicating with people they’ve never worked with or had any contact with before.”
Balut acknowledged that most of the officers in attendance knew how to clear rooms or engage suspects. The training, he said, was to familiarize the officers with the idea of working with officers from other departments in those high-intensity situations.
That comfort, he said, would enable police officers to more effectively respond in situations that involve active shooters.
Balut explained that he has gone through the training himself with Sam DeSimone, owner of Evolution Ordnance and Consulting, who also is a Pittston police officer.
Balut and DeSimone explained that the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado served as a catalyst for change in how police officers respond to active shooter situations. Balut said there were two schools of thought — police officers would arrive, lock the scene down and wait for a SWAT team, or respond and wait for four or five other officers for backup.
“They had the mentality back then that patrol guys were patrol guys, the SWAT guys were the tactical guys,” DeSimone said. “A lot of, most active shooter situations have been stopped by a single officer or up to three officers. It’s actually very effective.”
Balut added that the presence of law enforcement officers, even if it’s the first one or two officers to arrive at a scene, can be enough bring the situation to an end. He said that 90 percent of school shootings end up with the suspect either committing suicide or being killed by police.
“The presence is big enough, because their targets are the innocents, the people who are unable to defend themselves,” Balut said. “Generally when they know they got resistance, they’re not there to shoot it out.”
Balut said that the training class was made possible by the Luzerne County District Attorney’s office.
Salavantis said the Game Commission approached her about putting on an active shooter training seminar.
“There are so many active shooter events where law enforcement have to respond and don’t have any training whatsoever,” she said.
Salavantis then coordinated with DeSimone’s organization to create the first training program. Salavantis’ office also bought a number of the firearms for the training exercises, with non-lethal training rounds, along with protective gear.
Salavantis said she hopes to use the gear to help host other training programs throughout Luzerne County.
Reach Travis Kellar at 570-991-6389 or on Twitter @TLNews