WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — An active shooter situation in a crowded public place, a busy local business, or at a local school is every parent’s worst nightmare.
A mass shooting in Wichita Falls almost seems unfathomable, however, in nearly every city that has had the gut-wrenching experience of a mass shooting happen close to home, many people would express the same sentiment.
Luckily, the Wichita Falls Independent School District has not encountered an active shooter situation in its long history, but with events like the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas still fresh on the minds of Texans and Americans alike, the possibility of a school shooting is a heartbreaking reality most students and parents have to live with.
This leads many parents and guardians of WFISD students to wonder what would happen if an active shooter made their way onto their student’s campus, and if our local law enforcement agencies would be ready to respond if, God forbid, this ever happened in our own backyard.
For Ashley Thomas, Communications Officer with WFISD, the horrific idea of a mass shooting happening in Wichita Falls hits from two sides.
“Working in a school district and being a parent, when you see things like this on the news, it is your worst nightmare,” Thomas said. “It’s never something that we want to have to deal with but we know that if, heaven forbid, that were to happen, we need to be prepared.”
For that very reason, the City of Wichita Falls and the Wichita County Offices of Emergency Management conducted a full-scale active shooter exercise on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, at the vacant Sam Houston Elementary School located at 2500 Grant Street in Wichita Falls.
Sgt. Charlie Eipper, Public Information Officer with the Wichita Falls Police Department, said not only do city officials want to perform these types of trainings, but they want residents of Wichita Falls to know these types of trainings are happening, so they feel more safe.
“And that’s exactly one of our objectives is to make sure that our community knows, hey, we take this stuff seriously,” Sgt. Eipper said. “We know what’s going on around in our nation, even in our state.”
When all was said and done, Sgt. Eipper said he believes the drill was a success.
“I thought our training went well, you know, unfortunate the reality of an active shooter in this kind of situation is just what goes on in our world now, so what we try to do is stay ahead of the game, practice,” Sgt. Eipper said. “We have multiple agencies come together, which is going to happen in a situation like this.”
More than a dozen local agencies participated in Wednesday’s active shooter drill, including:
- City of Wichita Falls Office of Emergency Preparedness
- Wichita County Office of Emergency Management
- Wichita Falls Police Department
- Wichita Falls Fire Department
- Wichita County Sheriff’s Office
- Wichita Falls Independent School District
- United Regional Health Care System
- Texas Division of Emergency Management
- Texas Department of Public Safety
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Chris Horgen, Public Information Officer with the City of Wichita Falls, said with so many different agencies involved in situations like an active shooting, communication between agencies and to the public is a key component of exercises like this.
“The city has to work with everybody,” Horgen said. “So [The Wichita Falls] Police Department, [Wichita Falls] Fire Department, Emergency Management, [Wichita] County, [The Wichita County] Sheriff’s Office, everybody has to come together.
The exercise lasted for just over two hours and included a full response from law enforcement agencies, fire and emergency triage response, and transport to United Regional, as well as treatment by United Regional. It was a realistic of a scenario as it possibly could’ve been.
“They did a very good job of planning,” Horgen said. “I mean, they had so much covered, I mean, they had victims, there were people screaming, there was a parent, you know, there was a child screaming ‘mommy’ when I was up here.”
Students from Midwestern State University participated in the exercise as well, playing the role of civilians inside the school during the active shooting. They were carried from the school after authorities neutralized the simulated threat.
No real gunfire happened and no one was harmed during the exercise.
“There were some things they didn’t do, but it’s just because it’s a drill, it’s an exercise,” Horgen said. “But they would’ve been ready to do it and they understand they would’ve had to do that.”
The end goal of all of this is a team of local responders that are better equipped to respond to active shooter events, should they ever occur in Wichita Falls.
“To me, that’s the key part,” Horgen said. “They may not have done every little thing today, but they know that they would’ve had to had we actually had bullets flying.”
Thomas said in spite of the fact that WFISD has never seen an active shooter situaion on any of their campuses, the district is still prepared for the possibility.
“Even though we know those steps, it’s very good to plan and practice that, because then, it just helps us to see the sequence of events and making sure that we don’t miss something,” Thomas said. “Asking questions of other people around to make sure that we’re covering everything and nothing’s falling through the cracks.”
Thomas said that’s not all the district is doing to ensure the safety of its students. In addition to the recent hire of a new WFISD Police Chief, their team is constantly ensuring that potential active shooters would never be able to set foot on a WFISD campus.
“Doing door checks to make sure that all of our doors are not able to be propped open, teachers lock their classroom doors now,” Thomas said. “I think that’s been a big push this school year so far is just looking at exterior doors and interior doors, make sure all of them are working properly.”
Sgt. Eipper, Horgen, and Thomas all serve as the communication leads for their departments, and in scenarios like an active shooter situation, communicating to the citizens of Wichita Falls is key.
“It is so important that we’re all on the same page in an emergency situation like that,” Horgen said. “And the only way to make sure that flows smoothly and works as best as it can is to have exercises like this.”
It was clear from this exercise that each department’s communication point person was on the same page. The messaging was clear, concise, and consistent across all departments
“What’s nice about the communications is that we all know each other,” Horgen said. “We’re not competing against each other, everybody’s got their jobs to do, but we all know that if something like this happened, we’re there for support.”
Horgen said Public Information Officers and Communications Officers from local departments meet regularly to discuss communication both to the public and between departments, which is why they were able to respond so well in this type of situation.
While the residents of Wichita Falls certainly hope an active shooting event never happens in our city, the training exercise Wednesday morning was all about making sure our local responders are equipped if it ever does.
“It may be in a school, it may be at the movie theaters, wherever it’s at, so we try to adapt to that and train as much as possible, as close to that scenario as possible,” Sgt. Eipper said. “And we want our communities to know that we’re training so that they feel safe.”