For law enforcement agencies and risk experts nationwide, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has become a prime example of an active shooter training exercise gone wrong.
A report released Wednesday about the false active shooter incident on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Aug. 2 detailed how an uncoordinated response from law enforcement could have resulted in “serious injury and property damage.” The incident terrified staff and civilians in a hospital filled with “fog and friction,” an Air Force report concluded.
Greg Shaffer, tactical operations expert and former agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said this week the incident at Wright-Patt has been widely discussed in the security and risk management industry. He said radio incompatibility and differences in code-words between law enforcement agencies is a common problem in response scenarios, and the Wright-Patt incident showed the real-world risks of those issues.
Shaffer is CEO of Dallas-based Shaffer Security Group. He is an FBI-certified crisis negotiator, firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor.
“It was a communication fiasco,” Shaffer said. “I always say whether it’s marriage or a tactical operation, communication is key to ensure success.”
A breakdown of communication led to an uncoordinated and ineffective combined response that an Air Force review found could have resulted in serious injury or property damage. The report concluded that in order to prevent another day like Aug. 2 that Wright-Patt leadership must establish a thorough understanding between federal, state and local agencies about command and control decisions and make sure civilian and military agencies understand jurisdiction and response procedures.
“While realism is important in training exercises, all personnel must be always be fully aware of exercise vs. real-world situations. Coordinating with all concerned organizations and then sticking with the agreed upon plan is essential to keeping everyone fully aware,” according to the report.
The report described an unruly scene that unfolded on base following a report of an active shooter at the hospital in Area A.
The Air Force requires installations to hold an active shooter exercise twice a year. An active shooter exercise was planned for Aug. 2; it was announced base-wide and advertised throughout the region. Local news organizations were all notified in advance. That exercise was organized by the base inspector general and held at the Kittyhawk Chapel. Multiple role players simulated causalities of an active shooter during the exercise, according to the report.
But at the same time, the 88th Medical Group - which is housed at the Wright-Patt hospital - decided to hold a completely separate exercise at the Wright-Patt Medical Treatment Facility to test its mass casualty response procedures.
The exercise was not part of the installation active shooter exercise, according to the report. The exercise also was not published in the broader list of scheduled scenarios occurring on base that week. A formal risk assessment was not conducted for either exercises being conducted that day, the report found.
Col. Thomas Sherman, 88th Air Base and installation commander, said two different emergency scenario exercises, role-players with fake injuries, and ineffective communication were the main sparks of the confusion.
“It was the convergence of these activities which were taking place at the same time which brought a significant amount of confusion and doubt,” Sherman said.
The events caused widespread confusion that resulted in an Air Force Security Forces Squadron member shooting five rounds from an M4 rifle in an effort to break into a locked hospital room during what they thought was a search for a real shooter.
Wright-Patt officials refused to provide details about the the M4 shooting.
The Dayton Daily News has requested, under the Freedom of Information Act, a report about the M4 discharge from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in Washington, D.C. It was not provided by press time for this article.
The use of an M4 weapon to breach a locked door was inappropriate, the report stated. The Air Force Security Forces Squadron member fired an assault rifle through the window of an entryway door to gain access to a locked room.
Shaffer said it would never be appropriate to use an M4 to breach a locked door. “He should’ve never fired that weapon.”
“It was one mistake followed by another mistake after another. You get caught up in the moment,” Shaffer said. “Stress is a huge factor. That’s why we have training.”
As a security officer discharged his weapon, Hannah Wegner, a civilian employee who doesn’t typically work at the hospital, was hiding in an office room at Wright-Patterson Medical Center. Wegner was on base to volunteer for a mass casualty exercise in the hospital.
Bullets pierced through the wall on the right side of the room in which Wegner and the others hid.
“There were three people on the right side of the room. It was a miracle that day that no one was injured,” she said.
Additional 9-1-1 calls were made because of the shots fired by the base security member. Wright-Patt’s Incident Commander — the fire chief — attempted to explain that a base security member had fired the shots. But at 1:09 p.m., approximately 50 responders from various law enforcement agencies broke through the locked door of the hospital and entered with weapons drawn, the report stated.
A half hour later, responders started to clear the hospital building, and even more confusion occurred. After a team entered a room and determined it was safe, they announced “clear” to indicate to other responders that the room was swept. Hospital employees hiding in adjacent rooms thought it was safe to come out, but were instead met by responders with drawn weapons who were still sweeping the building,” the report said.
“The clue should have been when all the cops showed up at your gate,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, noting the base and local law enforcement “never really train together.”
“We basically speak different languages, the military and local law enforcement,” he said.
Patrick Oliver, former police chief in Fairborn and current associate professor of criminal justice at Cedarville University, said when the base is doing active shooter exercises, officials should notify every law enforcement agency as well as every hospital and emergency response agency in the region.
“Everybody should be aware of what’s happening,” he said.
Oliver said other than the weapon discharged to breach the door, the response was very appropriate and commended Sherman’s transparency. He said the base needs to develop new procedures and train “rigorously,” and they can do that with law enforcement agencies in the region that have established emergency management policies.
“There are emergency management plans to use as a model to help them make the changes they need to make,” Oliver said.
Federal law prohibits military forces from being used for law enforcement purposes, Oliver said, which complicates training between local police and bases.
“There really does need to be a separation between military police and state and local law enforcement,” he said. “I don’t know of any bases that do joint training.”
Base officials said radio incompatibility played a role in the confusion. Ohio has a Multi-Agency Radio Communication System, which allows different law enforcement to communicate in emergencies. Oliver said he was unsure why it was not used that day, and he did not know if the base was connected to that communication mechanism.
“They’re owning their mistakes,” he said. “[Communication] is a real issue, and one that they’re looking to address.”
• The use of an M4 weapon to breach a locked door was inappropriate. An Air Force Security Forces Squadron member fired an assault rifle through the window of a door to gain access to a locked room. Military personnel must follow weapons safety training at all times, especially during high pressure situations, the report found. Sherman would not specify if disciplinary action was taken against the service member who discharged the weapon.
• A breakdown of communication led to an uncoordinated and ineffective combined response that could have resulted in serious injury or property damage. A thorough understanding between federal, state and local agencies about command and control to include understanding jurisdiction and response procedures needs to be established, the report found.
• All base exercises were not clearly communicated to employees. “While realism is important in training exercises, all personnel must be always be fully aware of exercise vs. real-world situations. Coordinating with all concerned organizations and then sticking with the agreed upon plan is essential to keeping everyone fully aware.”