CBP officers go through active shooter training at the Field Operations Academy in Glynco, Georgia. Photo by David S. Tucker, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
On a bright and sunny Seattle day, two new CBP officers, Robert Carpenter and Ian Drury, were on their way from one part of the city’s international airport to another. Soon, they came upon a horrific scene: A badly damaged car with its driver stunned behind the wheel, airbag deployed; an airport shuttle bus laid on its side, shattered glass covering the pavement; critically – and fatally – injured passengers. The accident happened maybe 30 seconds before Carpenter and Drury arrived on the scene – the first, first responders to come upon the grisly sight.
“We jumped out of our vehicle and started helping in any way we could,” Carpenter said.
Drury said that after checking on the passenger in the car and seeing she was ok, he moved to the shuttle bus, first encountering a man who was obviously dead and then moving to other passengers. “I looked for arterial bleeds,” trying to figure out how to get the half dozen survivors out, he said.
“It was my fourth day on the job in Seattle,” Drury said. “I had literally just moved to the city.”
Both credit the new tactical medical training they had received just weeks earlier this past summer at the CBP’s Field Operations Academy, where they completed officer basic training for all new CBP officers.
“The training helped us jump in and make a difference,” Carpenter said.
Where it begins
Nearly 3,000 miles away from the Pacific Northwest, the latest group of freshman CBP officers receive life-saving training at the Field Operations Academy in Glynco, Georgia, on the campus of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. The center provides career-long training to federal law enforcement professionals, as well as state, local, and tribal departments.
“You’ll be tested,” promised Supervisory CBP Officer Vannya Gutierrez, preparing her class for another true-life law enforcement scenario, one of many the students faced during just their first couple of weeks of training.
“Partner, can you hear me? Are you hit?” Corbin Halley, a CBP officer, who just graduated the academy in December 2019, called out from behind a cover position to a law enforcement officer shot by an assailant who has run off. When he reaches the officer, Halley starts to secure the area and tend to the victim’s leg wound.
The trainees learn a mnemonic – words with first letters that form a phrase – to help remember what to do first. In this case, they remember the word MARCH: Massive hemorrhage, Airway, Respirations, Circulation, and Hypothermia or Head injury. Conversely, they’re taught to pack their first aid kits in the reverse order of the mnemonic so the most important tools for the most time-critical treatments are at the top.
“We keep it as realistic as we can,” said Mark Kuscsik, an academy supervisory CBP officer, explaining why actors are used and the wounds are made to look real. The 13-year veteran of CBP knows it’s knowledge these new CBP officers will need once they get to the field. “There’s a heightened level of threats we CBP officers are facing: the rise of active shooters and violence towards our people, especially down at the border. This type of training is not just important to help protect the public, but also to help protect themselves and their fellow CBP officers. We’re training the future of our own backups.”
Training in a situation like this allows these new trainees to focus on the task at hand and what they could face once in the field, a point not lost on Halley, who’s from Los Angeles and is headed back to Southern California to work in San Diego.
“It allows me to think clearly, not rush through things,” he said. “It really helped me a lot to calm down and utilize my training.”
Classmate Jaqueline Salinas from Brownsville, Texas, who’s headed to Laredo, said it’s training she’s glad to get but prays she’ll never use. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but anything can happen, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be comfortable doing it, if necessary,” she added.
On the far side of the training campus, students within a couple of weeks of graduating face a nightmarish scenario.
“He’s shooting everyone! You have to help!” screams a woman. In this scenario, she’s running from a building, telling the squad of four CBP officer trainees to help the people being shot inside.
Gunshots pop, “victim-actors” plead for help, as the trainees move in formation steadily through the building to confront the active shooter. They quickly find him. It’s an easy search because he leaves a trail of bleeding bodies. In maybe 30 seconds – which could feel like 30 minutes in all the screaming and gore – the trainees get through the maze of offices and rooms, take down the shooter, secure the room, and then step out of role to talk with their instructors about how they did.
“What did we forget?” Supervisory CBP Officer Eric Urgo asks his students. Sheepishly, the trainees actually offer up the harshest criticism of their performance: walking past open doors they should have checked, moving too quickly and not working as one. But Urgo is quick to encourage them. “Work together as a team,” he said. “I know it’s a lot, but this is where we really gotta do ourselves a favor, because we want to go home at the end of the day.”
As the first of the groups of trainees, they re-group and prepare to repeat the scenario. On that second chance, the group performed better, learning their hard lessons.
Fellow instructor, Supervisory CBP Officer Victor Ortiz, emphasized why it’s so important these new CBP officers learn how to handle an active shooter.
“We want them to have that mental commitment to take action during an active shooter situation,” Ortiz said. “As CBP officers, it is our duty to protect ourselves and the American public. By making this scenario as real as possible, it builds that mindset. They learn to work together as a team, communicate and maintain situational awareness in order to survive in this particular situation.”
With so many threats that CBP officers face near or at the ports of entry, the importance of this active shooter training and the tactical medical course is clear: They need to be prepared, explained Christopher Holtzer, director of CBP’s Field Operations Academy.
“With the multitude of threats we face now, and with our officers poised to respond to these threats, and the threat of those incidents happening at or near our ports of entry, now we prepare them to deal with these things,” said Holtzer. “God forbid, if one of those terrible events happens – whether it’s a terrorist act or horrible accident resulting in a mass casualty event – our folks are well-equipped now to handle those situations and save lives.”
Holtzer said students and faculty have benefitted from the training even while at the academy.
“One of our staff here rescued an attempted suicide by an individual who cut himself and jumped off the pier into the ocean,” he said. “He was one of the first on scene to pull him out of the water onto a pilot boat and actually applied a tourniquet that he grabbed from his vehicle – one of the basic medical interventions learned during this training. It can happen anywhere.”
“Those scenarios train them and inoculate them to deal with those real-life situations, whether it’s using mannequins or real people,” he said, adding field offices also are doing some form of the lifesaving training, so it’s not just the new officers who are getting these important skills. “We give them the basic foundational knowledge and skills they need to better prepare them to deal with the ever-evolving threats we are seeing. We want to train our folks so they are the most prepared CBP officers we can actually put out there.”
Nearly 3,000 students at the academy have received the tactical medical training since it began in the summer of 2018, in addition to the field units training veteran officers; since 2014, thousands more have been trained to tactically respond to a variety of threats and situations, including an active shooter situation.
Ortiz and Urgo, both 11-year veterans of CBP, didn’t get this type of training when they first joined the agency. They hope it makes the new CBP officers realize this could happen at any time, any place, whether they are on the job or just out shopping.
“This is an eye-opener [for the new officers],” Ortiz said. “Some people have never been under this level of stress. Having the trainees experience these types of scenarios teaches them how to react during stressful situations and shows them the possibilities of what could happen.”
“Now they’re thinking, ‘This is why I need my body armor; this is why I need to be focusing on my gun; this is why I need to slow it down,’” Urgo said. “If I don’t do my job, I may not go home.”
Back in Seattle, Drury and Carpenter reflect on the knowledge they put into practice in just the few days after graduating from the academy.
Knowing immediately what to do saves lives, noted Carpenter. Drury agreed.
“The training was crucial,” Drury said, with Carpenter adding knowing what to do right away, saves lives. “Thank God for the training.”