Preparing for the unthinkable
By John Yewell
Two people lay wounded as a man with a gun went on a rampage throughout NIEHS June 17 — each person playing a role in an important emergency drill.
Operation Sleipnir attempted to simulate and evaluate the security response to an active shooter scenario. In Norse mythology, Sleipnir is the eight-legged horse belonging to the god Odin. “Like the horse,” explained Mitch Williams, head of the NIEHS Operations and Security Branch, “security is a multi-faceted animal requiring a great deal of coordination for forward progress.”
The NIEHS Operations and Security Branch and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Facilities Support Branch put four months of planning into the exercise. NIEHS and EPA staff worked alongside Durham County, North Carolina, sheriff and police personnel. Local 911 centers were advised of the exercise in advance.
Morning briefing emphasizes authenticity
Operation Sleipnir kicked off with a morning briefing for the 127 participants. “I’ve heard a little bit of anxiety from some — you’re in good company if you feel this way,” Williams said to the group. “The whole intent here is to learn.”
“There will be confusion,” added William Malone, director of global risk services with McManis and Monsalve Associates, with whom NIEHS and the EPA partnered to develop and oversee the exercise. “The goal is to make it as plausible and real as possible.”
The drill was planned to test emergency communications; rehearse coordination among campus guard forces, local police, emergency responders, and NIEHS off-site locations; and practice first aid response. “It’s a learning, no-fault environment,” said Williams during the briefing. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Tracking an active shooter
The exercise began shortly after 9:20 a.m., when intercom announcements alerted NIEHS employees to the shooter and instructed them to shelter in place. According to Williams, the scenario involved a hypothetical domestic dispute.
First responders tracked the suspect, played by a Durham police officer, as he headed from one end of the NIEHS main building to the other, then towards the EPA campus. Emergency medical technicians moved in to attend to the simulated victims.
The exercise took twice as long as expected due to the highly complex scenario. “It was stretched to provide ample time for campus security and law enforcement to practice integration and coordination,” Williams said.
Recovery and debriefing key to learning process
The drill concluded with a recovery exercise and debriefing, known as a hotwash, which included all participants involved in the operation. “There was great feedback from NIEHS personnel,” said Darryl Lawton, Malone’s colleague at McManis and Monsalve.
The prediction of confusion was well-founded. Problems with the PA system led to uncertainty about the progress of the exercise, and workers in the offsite Keystone building received no announcements at all.
Despite these glitches, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, stressed the value of the exercise. “Overall, I think we evaluated the situation and we learned from it,” Birnbaum said. “We know that the greatest risk in the workplace is an active shooter. And it’s really important that we all know what to do to keep ourselves and our fellows safe in that emergency.”
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)