by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — On Feb. 25, a gunman ran out of the wooded area near the Peterson Shoppette on Kelly Street and began firing into a large crowd of Airmen and civilians.
“Get down,” Airmen shouted at the crowd, which had just evacuated Air Force Space Command Headquarters Building 1, near the north gate.
The gunman shot 13 people before a good Samaritan tackled him and security forces seized the gun.
In one of the most comprehensive exercise scenarios that has played out on Peterson Air Force Base in some years, Airmen and civilians alike were involved at all levels of exercise play for four days. Buildings were on lockdown, sometimes for several hours, as security forces and the explosive ordnance disposal team scoured hallways and stairwells for bombs and bad guys.
This quarterly exercise, Condor Crest, simulated rogue shooters on base. The exercise tested crowd control, building evacuation, public affairs communication protocols, medical and fire response and security forces’ reaction time.
Recent incidents of shootings on school and college campuses have plagued the news. But, it was a shooting on an Army base that had all of the Department of Defense questioning installation preparedness. In November, a gunman opened fire at the Soldiers Readiness Center on Fort Hood, Texas, and killed 13 people and wounded or injured 43 people. Emergency responders were on scene two minutes and 45 seconds after the 911 call and one and half minutes later the suspect was apprehended. According to the “Lessons from Fort Hood” report released in January, the quick response to the shooter was based on practice.
Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Air Force Space Command commander, directed every wing in AFSPC to run an active shooter exercise by March 1, said Lt. Col. David Hanson, deputy director of staff.
“It was Fort Hood, plus other national events that really made key leadership at AFSPC think this could happen to us,” Colonel Hanson said. “Last year, General Kehler said, ‘I want us to be ready.’”
The general said he wanted AFSPC headquarters building to be involved in the exercise on Peterson, Colonel Hanson said.
“It’s everyone’s concern,” Colonel Hanson said.
During the exercise, AFSPC headquarters employees were evacuated to the parking lot next to the shoppette. As the rogue gunman started shooting into the crowd, Staff Sgt. Austin Armstrong tried to make the scene as real as possible, he said. He hid in the ditch and watched as people moved into the parking lot. Crouching, he moved slowly up on the crowd and started firing. Suddenly, he was tackled by someone in the crowd and within 20 seconds he was surrounded by security forces.
“We can table-top all day long,” said Sergeant Armstrong, who is a member of security forces. “Until you do the real thing, you don’t know how it will go down.”
Stopping a shooter is one of the most difficult emergency situations an installation could face, said Bill Edwards, 21st SW installation exercise director. He plans the scenarios and his goal is to make them as real as possible. With 16 role players and dozens of evaluators, the team rolled out 127 events to test deployment, emergency management and compliance with Air Force policies and procedures.
“Our emergency responders normally arrive at an incident and put a fire out, protect personnel and property, without being under fire,” Mr. Edwards said. “But, in an active shooter event, that all changes. Their goal is to take the shooter out.”
To ensure maximum realism, events continued to play out past the capture of the shooter or evacuation of a building. For example, in one instance a “bomb” exploded in the 21st Space Wing headquarters building and employees from the building were relocated for an extended time to test their ability to react to the event. Also, the so called “next of kin” were notified and news releases were sent to national media outlets.
The wing has not gone that far in the past, Mr. Edwards said.
“For folks who are a little bothered by the exercise, the thing to remember is that we are putting on a scenario to protect them in the long run,” Mr. Edwards said. “They may be inconvenienced right now, but if there were an active shooter on the installation, and (installation commander) Colonel Whiting’s forces were unable to contain it, I would think the complaints would be more difficult to answer – why didn’t we train hard, why didn’t we practice realistically.”
Generally, most people have practiced evacuating a building during a fire. However, many units have not practiced a lockdown scenario, Mr. Edwards said. It is a recommended area for improvement.
“When you have an active shooter on the installation, your first thought needs to be, take cover, shelter and lockdown the facility,” he said.
Wing headquarters staff played out the scene perfectly, said Tech. Sgt. Monique Killian, 21st SW Inspector General wing readiness flight chief. When it was reported that a shooter was approaching the building from Eagle Park, the wing office went dark, employees were hidden and the doors were locked. Likewise, the command post also followed protocol.
“I went to the phone, I showed them my badge and they would not let me in,” Sergeant Killian said. “That’s exactly what they were supposed to do.”
The next quarterly Condor Crest exercise will be May 4 to 8 and an active shooter scenario will be part of it, Mr. Edwards said.
“Colonel Whiting’s direction is we will continue to do active shooter events until we are extremely good at them,” Mr. Edwards said