Student Volunteers Aid Active Shooter Training

Students in a smoke-filled hallway prepare for role-playing duty (Chris MacMaster photo)

More than 50 Northern Michigan University students—mostly criminal justice majors—are volunteering as role players for active shooter training scenarios being conducted this week by the Michigan State Police Emergency Support Team (ES Team) in the former hospital's emergency room. Representatives of all Marquette County law enforcement agencies are participating. One NMU student even came up with an idea for a new scenario that became part of the training.

“I don't think I can express enough what an asset it is to have the students here and what a great job they're doing,” said MSP Sgt. Jonah Bonovetz, the ES Team leader, during a break. “Dry, stagnant scenarios don't do much for the officers involved. But these students are making a big difference by providing a sense of realism, whether they're injured, screaming, running or yelling information to those responding. At the end, I always ask how they're doing because the stress level can go up. But they love it—to the point that several have come back to volunteer for more time than they originally signed up for. They're not gaining any intel from this; they're only providing a major benefit to the officers.”

The efforts to mimic reality extend to the environment created in the vacant ER. The ES Team uses a gunfire simulator, producing a sound that matches a real weapon even though the officers are armed with air-soft guns. A machine that generates harmless smoke, borrowed from the Marquette Fire Department, adds the challenge of reduced visibility. Emergency lights may also be illuminated, as if someone pulled a fire alarm.

Three-hour training blocks are held three times a day. Each features a few different scenarios that are repeated within the block. When time remained at the end of one session, Bonovetz asked NMU students if they had any ideas for a fresh scenario that they would like to see. Senior criminal justice major Jonathan Sullivan, whose goal is to work for the Michigan State Police, came up with one that became part of the training.

“I suggested having students run down a hallway with the active shooter pursuing them because it makes it challenging for responding officers in terms of target selection,” Sullivan said. “The officers' trigger discipline really impressed me. No students got hit and they managed to stop the active shooter. It's not incredibly difficult to serve as role players, but it makes the training more effective. It's good for students to see the preparation required for these situations, and to establish contacts with area law enforcement.”

Law enforcement tactics in active shooter situations are to move toward the gunfire. For some scenarios, student actors are instructed to give verbal or physical direction to the officers, saying “He went that way” or pointing. For others, they are asked to provide no helpful feedback—just chaotic screaming and hollering, leaving the officers to navigate through the distractions and unknowns to determine where the threat is coming from. 

“It's unfortunate that this type of training is necessary, but we have seen that these incidents can impact any community,” said NMU criminal justice instructor Christopher MacMaster. “By volunteering, students are showing they are community service-minded. They can also see the level of training police officers go through and their professionalism and commitment. These are the people who will be responding if something like this happens. Realistic scenarios give them confidence in what they're doing and promote a more well-coordinated response.”

MacMaster said the ES Team reached out to him in November to inquire about potential student volunteers for the training. He distributed emails and made announcements in classes. While about two-thirds of those who signed up are criminal justice majors, MacMaster said a variety of academic disciplines are represented.

Students in front of an ES Team vehicle (Chris MacMaster photo)
Students in front of an ES Team vehicle (Chris MacMaster photo)
A student volunteer playing injured (Chris MacMaster photo)
A student volunteer playing injured (Chris MacMaster photo)
Prepared By

Kristi Evans
News Director

Categories: Around NMU