By Brandon OConnorMay 2, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Early in the morning on April 24, gunshots rang out across the U.S. Military Academy.
Cadets ran through central area as they were evacuated from their classrooms, the gates were closed, buildings were locked down and military police carrying rifles arrived ready to face the assailants.
The response was real, but the attack itself was part of a carefully planned exercise designed to test West Point's ability to respond in the event of a real emergency. Four gunmen played by FBI agents simulated an attack on the academy with three shooters going from building to building and one assailant holding a hostage in the superintendent's office.
West Point holds a force protection exercise every year, but this time extra emphasis was placed on making the scenario as realistic as possible. The goal Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, West Point superintendent, said was to put stress on every aspect of the West Point community.
"I think it is very important that in the event of a real emergency we practice really, really hard," Williams said. "I had heard that past exercises were good, but perhaps not as rigorous as they should have been. I believe in hard training. Our cadets and certainly our community here at West Point expect the very best-hard, realistic training."
The class and work day were disrupted as the entire garrison was put on lock down including the West Point elementary and middle schools. Long lines developed at the gates as extra checks were performed in the morning and then they were closed for hours to simulate a real response.
First responders from New York State Police and regional emergency medical service units responded as they would in a real attack, although on a smaller scale. Cadets and staff who became casualties throughout the day were treated and transported to Keller Army Community Hospital where medical staff triaged and cared for them.
"This MASCAL exercise was an invaluable training opportunity for our hospital," Col. Brett H. Venable, Keller Army Community Hospital commander, said. "You never know when a real-world calamity will occur, and this exercise helped prepare our staff for a true emergency situation."
Keller, in cooperation with the on-scene incident commander, assisted ambulances with navigation through safe zones to recover and deliver injured people. Once the injured arrived at the hospital, they were triaged and provided treatment. All appointments were cancelled which allowed for hospital staff to provide realistic medical support to exercise participants.
"We have a great team here and everyone was committed to the exercise," Williams said. "This was like it was a real event and that is really what I wanted everybody to feel. Those great Army Soldiers and sergeants who were storming up the library steps, it was real for them. The folks who reacted to the hostage situation when they were trying to ask for the superintendent, it was real for them. The hospital team and all the different configurations, it was real for them."
The full-day exercise was the main event of a month-long test that began April 2. Planning for the exercise started in September and the next few months will be spent assessing the response and determining where improvements can be made.
An assault of the magnitude simulated during the exercise requires responses from not just the internal military police, but also from agencies throughout the region. Officers from the New York State Police Special Operations Team took control of the hostage situation once they arrived using their expertise to bring the situation to a conclusion without injury. Medical first responders from the area assisted with aftermath of caring for and transporting victims. Multiple other local police and sheriffs' departments also responded as did the Orange County Division of Emergency Services and medical examiner's office.
As first responders from the military police, Army Criminal Investigations Division and local agencies responded, evaluators took in every action and their assessments will play a key role in the after-action reports.
"From the feedback I received, the exercise was significantly more challenging and revealing than past exercises," Christopher Hennen, West Point Emergency manager, said. "But that's a good thing. Apprehension and failure can be instructive. If you're not seeking system stress points, and risking failure in the process, you're not learning. Failure's not the opposite of success, it's part of success-it's an opportunity to learn without real consequences and to improve ahead of real tragedies."
The information gathered and the experience the responders gained by being placed in a realistic scenario were designed to enable West Point to be as prepared as possible in the event there is a real emergency or attack on post.
"It sends a very strong signal to any would be assailant that would even think about being here that the senior leaders and all this community are concerned about force protection," Williams said. "Our most vital assets are our men, women, the cadets, the family members and the entire community here. It needs to be a safe place that they can work and thrive."
(Editor's note: Robert Lanier, Keller Army Community Hospital Public Affairs Officer, contributed to this story.)