PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. (September 4, 2013) -- Roughly eight months after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a life-like scenario unfolded at a New Jersey school and Picatinny Arsenal played a key role in the success of the drill that put law enforcement officials in the middle of a valuable training exercise.

The sounds of police, fire and ambulance sirens made the Aug. 20, full-scale lifelike simulation of an active shooter and hostage situation at Liberty Middle School in West Orange, N.J., feel 100 percent real, so much so that some participants forgot it was merely a drill.

"When the father started screaming that his son was in the school and demanding information from the police officer I had to remind myself that he was an actor. It seemed so real and came out of nowhere," said Robert Hegarty, who helped facilitate the training exercise.

Hegarty is an employee of the U.S. Army Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC).

Hegarty used his nine-plus years in counter terrorism experience and engineering support to Warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), to present local first responders with realistic bombing scenarios.

More than 150 people and dozens of organizations helped turn the school drill into what could only be described as controlled chaos.

The simulation took months of planning, but ultimately resulted in the successful execution of the largest collaboration of the military and both local and federal law enforcement officials working together in an active shooter exercise, said Sgt. John Morella of the West Orange Police Department.

"We are using this as a learning experience; gathering data on where both our strong and weak points are and what we need to do to improve on those weaknesses," Morella said.

Police officers received a 911 call stating that four gunmen entered an occupied school and opened fire. Within minutes, dozens of officers responded to the scene, believing that they could be facing the worst possible scenario that could put their own lives in danger. They soon learned that it would be a training exercise.

As first responders pulled up to the school, they were slowed down by other officials who took their lethal weapons, informing them that their training would now be tested.

Witnesses could see the relief on the faces of the officers as they learned the school was not under a real attack. However, they immediately switched roles and geared up for the simulation.

The officers ran up the hill where they were given "Simunitions," a realistic non-lethal training weapon and ammunition. They were also fitted with optical gear that captured live video feeds from a first-person perspective.

Engineers with the Target Behavioral Response Laboratory (TBRL), also part of Picatinny Arsenal, tracked the movement of role players and responders using sensors and software that provided real-time tracking for the West Orange Chief of Police and was recorded for trainers to use in after-action reviews.

Close to 30 cameras were mounted in various areas throughout school. A Picatinny camera crew, distinguished by blue shirts separating themselves from role players, also followed inside along with film students and faculty of the Montclair State University who will be producing a documentary on the day's actions.

Thousands of gigabytes of video recordings and data were all turned over to TBRL for consolidation which, once compiled, will help trainers evaluate how responders reacted.

"Our post-activity goal is to take all the video feeds and put them into an editor, match the timelines, and link it with the digital and location data," said John Riedener, Technical Director of the TBRL. "The police will be able to see how they came through an entrance, determine if the officers break a formation, and how the officers reacted when shots were fired at them."

Inside the school, trained officers were playing the roles of active shooters and fired "sim rounds" at the responding officers, who also fired back, taking down three of the four intruders. A hostage situation unfolded, requiring a hostage negotiator to arrive on scene along with a Tactical Response Team.

A New Jersey State Police helicopter flew overhead during the two-hour simulation.

"For us this activity is a proof of principal, using a training activity as a live simulation that in the future could be repeated for testing," said Riedener, who along with his staff spent 12 days setting the school up with sensors and cameras.

Students and school faculty played the roles of hostages and injured personnel. A professional make-up crew assisted in creating fake injuries that looked realistic, including a gunshot wound to the head of the school's principal.

Adding to the reality of this drill were actors playing the role of anguished parents--parents desperately seeking information, and parents trying to get their son or daughter out of the school. Police officers who were not designated to enter the school to face the "danger" were also put to their own test: How they reacted with crowd control, keeping parents and media at bay, as well as providing them with necessary information to keep them out of harm's way.

To create even more confusion and chaos to the reactions of responders, nearby vehicles as well as a garbage can outside the school were rigged with pyrotechnics and fireworks simulating improvised bombs. The Essex County Bomb Squad was called in, bringing a local K-9 unit to sniff for any remaining explosives.

Catherine Kislowski, a project officer with the Pyrotechnic Technology and Prototyping Division at Picatinny, described the use of simulated explosive devices.

"In an effort to create a realistic training scenario, three different IED simulations were created. One placed in a garbage can and two in a vehicle, one underneath the hood and one in the trunk," she said.

"This simulated the look of explosives within close proximity of the school--the can and a vehicle-born IED. In order to generate the effects necessary, we utilized our launching devices, as well as a combination of flash bang, star, and black smoke pyrotechnic simulators. This achieved the look of bombs going off around the school and allowed law enforcement to react accordingly."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded the $140,000 exercise. Tanya Fogg, a program support specialist at Picatinny, wrote the interagency agreement that secured the funding.

She also coordinated all meetings and got the core team together.

Michael Corry, the DHS liaison officer to ARDEC, said it was critical that ARDEC experts play such a vital role in helping law enforcement agencies adjust to the growing threats they will face and more complex attacks.

ARDEC's ability to add realism to this exercise and evaluate operation performance will be critical in the after-action report and future training.

Also, the test and evaluation of some of the counter-IED equipment used in the exercise will be vital for the development of future technologies by the DHS Explosives Division.

Steven Savage played the role of a parent trying to get information from the police officers on the scene.

"I thought it was important, especially with what happened at Sandy Hook, that I do this," he said. "I felt it was an obligation. I will be remembered as the over-the-top parent but I think I gave these officer a real-life look at how parents are going to be responding."

It will take about one to two months to compile all the data recorded, then debrief participants.