IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Fire Department might most commonly be associated with its big red-and-white fire engines, but Tuesday crews trained with a less recognizable piece of equipment: red-and-black bulletproof vests.
The Johnson County Ambulance Service about two years ago became the first known ambulance service in the area to be issued bulletproof vests, said Johnson Emergency Management Director Dave Wilson. Iowa City firefighters added bulletproof vests to their collection of gear about six months ago.
Both of those departments — along with several law enforcement and first-responder agencies — put those vests to use during an active shooter scenario training exercise Tuesday at the University of Iowa’s Campus Recreation & Wellness Center.
“The world has changed quite a bit,” Iowa City Fire Deputy Chief Eric Nurnberg said of firefighters donning and training in bulletproof vests. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to adapt with the times. ... People that get hurt in active shooter situations like these, they generally need help very quickly. We need to find a way to get them that help.”
Tuesday’s training came on the heels of two deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that claimed at least 31 lives in all. The Del Sol Hospital in El Paso had recently undergone training in which staff members prepared to treat a large number of patients from a mass killing — training put to use when 11 people were sent there after the rampage.
But this local training has been in the works for years. Wilson said UI staff approached him about conducting training at the wellness center during a multiagency training exercise at the Iowa City Airport two years ago.
“They said, ‘We’re a highly populated area, we’d like to do something,’” Wilson said. “We jumped at the opportunity.”
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More than just a typical active shooter drill, Tuesday’s training saw the integration of fire and emergency medical service personnel with police officers, which is part of the rescue task force concept.
That concept, which is used across the country, involves armed police officers escorting fire or emergency medical personnel into the “warm zone” of a shooting. A warm zone is an area that has been cleared by law enforcement, but has not been fully secured.
Once inside the warm zone, the first responders locate, triage and extract shooting victims.
Wilson said area departments have trained on the rescue task force concept individually, but never in a large scale operation like Tuesday’s.
“The value for us is really just taking an opportunity to hone those skills so that if something does happen where we have to introduce EMS and fire into a warm zone, that the people that are doing those jobs and normally used to sitting in a cold zone are comfortable going in with law enforcement,” he said. “They might hear gunfire in the distance within the building. They’re comfortable with that.”
The training kicked off about 9 a.m. with volunteers “fleeing” the building. UI police arrived first, followed quickly by personnel from the other participating agencies, which included Iowa City police and fire, Coralville police and fire, North Liberty police and fire, UI Emergency Management and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. As the situation unfolded, teams of firefighters and paramedics entered the recreation facility protected by police officers. Volunteers acting as shooting victims were extracted from the building.
The scenario lasted about 30 minutes and was run twice. Wilson said he didn’t try to throw any curveballs into the training in order to allow the first responders to focus on the tactics they practiced.
“We’re trying to crawl, walk and run,” Wilson said. “This is a new concept ... We’re just trying to do a full-scale exercise with all agencies.”
Wilson said the recreation facility was ideal for the training because of its large footprint and complex layout. In the past, the university has hosted multiagency trainings at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and Kinnick Stadium.
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“This morning’s exercise was a great example of the partnerships that exist in Johnson County,” said Scott Beckner, director of UI Public Safety. “We appreciate the opportunity to train with other area first responders as we all continue to enhance our preparedness and ability to respond to a potential violent incident.”
Iowa City Fire’s Nurnberg said the large scale training exercises allow the agencies to build trust with one another, see which aspects of their response plans work and which need tweaking. The exercises entail “chaos and uncertainty” and participants must learn how to adapt, he said.
“I most appreciate the opportunities to work with all of the other agencies that were involved,” Nurnberg said. “Whether (something like this) happens ni Iowa City or one of the smaller communities, none of us have the capacity to respond effectively to one of these incidents without the help from everyone.”
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