Training exercise at Midwestern University

Police officers enter a building at Midwestern University during a training exercise for handling a shooting at a school (Dawn Rhodes, Chicago Tribune / July 11, 2014)

An actor carrying a black backpack strode toward the entrance of the Alumni Hall on the Downers Grove Midwestern University campus at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

He stopped and yelled at a man passing by, pulled out a blue, fake pistol and fired. Snap. The man then entered the building. Pop. pop! He yelled again and continued firing. Pop. Pop.

The pretend shooter, the man he met outside and others in the building all were performers mimicking a situation in which there was an active shooter inside a school. The scenario was staged as part of a large-scale training exercise for Downers Grove emergency responders.

Downers Grove Police Chief Robert Porter said the chances of a school shooting occurring in town are remote, but it was critical for all first responders and area organizations to collaborate and be prepared for the worst.

"The village and our partners take this seriously," Porter said. "The time to prepare for something like this is prior to the incident."

More than 200 officers, paramedics and other personnel participated in the training, officials said. The exercise was organized in tandem with Midwestern, Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital, and police departments in Lombard, Oak Brook, Woodridge and Darien. Administrators from Community High School District 99 and Grade School District 58 observed the training.

"These are the actual people that would be coming into a real-life incident to help us out," Fire Department Chief Jim Jackson said. "So now when they respond to us, they know how we operate. Everything's cohesive."

Porter and Jackson said the exercise was designed to help both departments improve policies and practices for such a situation. Outside evaluators were brought in to assess their performance and the departments will receive a more formal debriefing.

"Like any major incident, there's always things that we can do better," Porter said. "This is an ongoing process."

"This is why we train, because it draws out the kind of thing that we need to enhance and work on," Jackson said.

Moments after the first shots, a dispatcher came over the radio saying that there had been a 911 call reporting gunfire. The man who first encountered the shooter outside ducked behind a placard and called police while lying on the grass. Then the dispatcher announced a description of the shooter: white man with a white shirt, brown pants and a black backpack.

After another few minutes, two officers came running toward the building. They ran up a small, grassy hill, crouching behind the shrubs and trees. As the officers took their position, a man slowly crawled out of the entrance, his hands red. The officers ordered him to lie on the ground and searched him for weapons before directing him to run in the other direction.

A third officer joined the two cops and the trio carefully entered the building.

"Help! Help! Please help me!" a female voice calls from inside.

"Where's he at?" one officer yells.

"Upstairs! Upstairs!" the woman responds.

After a few moments, several quick cracks pepper the air. Then more cracks. Then silence.

Porter said that the first officers on the scene are tasked with eliminating a threat by heading toward gunfire and engaging a suspect. In this scenario, the officers and a supervisor confronted the gunman in the atrium and exchanged fire; killing him about 8 minutes after the first shots were fired.

Police then had to establish a secure area for paramedics to access injured victims, create a triage area, and clear a path for responders to transport people to the hospital, Porter said.

Eventually, police cars and ambulances swarm the building and a local SWAT team is sent inside. Officers bring groups of people outside to safety. One has two large splotches of blood on his white shirt. Another walks with a limp, helped to a waiting ambulance by another victim.

In all, 30 people were injured, including one campus security officer.

Just before 10 a.m., the dispatcher's voice comes over the radio: "All clear. All clear."

cdrhodes@tribune.com | @rhodes_dawn