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State police want Vermonters to be prepared for an active shooter incident

A photo of a Vermont State Trooper in a tan uniform on a stage in front of a projector screen, with a crowd of people watching on.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Lt. Hugh O'Donnell, of the Vermont State Police, talks to a group of people at Arlington Memorial High School.

The FBI says the number of active shooter incidents in the United Statesalmost doubled in the last 20 years, and there were 61 last year.

These events are also happening at places like Fourth of July parades, grocery stores, and places of worship.

The Vermont State police are holding a series of forums this month to train the public on what they can do to prevent, and respond to, an active shooter.

At a recent forum in Arlington, Vermont State Police Lt. Hugh O’Donnell stood in front of a room of about 40 people, and told them what to do if they come across an active shooter.

“We’ve done a lot of active shooter training with police officers, with firefighters,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there for schools. There really isn’t a lot of training for just the general public.”

The general public, at least in this country, is more likely to come across an active shooter today than at any point in the past, according to the nonprofit news group, The Marshall Project.

And so the state police are offering these courses to let Vermonters know what to do if they’re in a public space, and someone has a gun, and is using it.

Click here to listen to JOLTED, a five-part podcast about a school shooting in Vermont that didn't happen.

Elliot Nachwalter lives here in Arlington, and says he used to be an EMT, so he’s had some training in how to respond to an emergency.

Still, he came out tonight because with every news report of another shooting in America, it seems that much more likely that it could happen to him.

“I think it’s the preponderance of shootings that makes you think about that it’s real, and it could happen to anyone,” Nachwalter said. “It’s not just what you watch on TV. You could be there.”

The hour-and-a-half program included information on how to be more aware of your surroundings, and when to contact authorities when you notice something suspicious.

And there were tips on when to barricade a room, when to try to run, and how to fight back if you encounter an active shooter.

“You're there, you're making the decision as the adult: Is it safe for me to stay in this room, and I have the way to barricade, or is there a window?" O'Donnell said. "It's happening in the hallway. So lock down used to be the best option, it's not always the best option. But sometimes it is the best option. I don't have the silver bullet to give you the best answer.”

“Nobody wants to talk about this. It’s not comfortable to talk about... The goal is to empower you. To have knowledge. So if an incident occurs, you have some choices."
Lt. Hugh O'Donnell, Vermont State Police

O’Donnell said we know what to do when a fire alarm goes off, and we should all have some training, and begin talking about, what to do if there’s an active shooter.

“Nobody wants to talk about this. It’s not comfortable to talk about. We’re going to talk about some uncomfortable things during this conversation,” O’Donnell said. “The goal is to empower you. To have knowledge. So if an incident occurs, you have some choices. You don’t have time when these things occur, in emergencies. So having that little bit in your head already can mean the difference for you, for survival.”

Bettina Longino, who drove up here from Bennington, says she’s not sure how she’d react if she found herself in a public space with bullets flying.

So it seemed worthwhile to spend a few hours here learning a little bit about the best practices.

“I don’t think I have any specific expectations of being in such a situation, but, you can’t ignore the state of the world and the news that you hear,” Longino said. “I do some traveling. I have two college-age children. And I’d like to think that in a situation like that, I’d react, rather than freeze. So hopefully this will help some.”

The speaker reminded the crowd a few times about an incident in 2006, when a gunman killed two people and injured three others in Essex.

And he talked about the teenager from Poultney, who had weapons and was allegedly planning a shooting before law enforcement stopped him.

“I think it’s the preponderance of shootings that makes you think about that it’s real, and it could happen to anyone. It’s not just what you watch on TV. You could be there.”
Elliot Nachwalter, Arlington resident

Tim Knell recently moved to Vermont from Pittsburgh, and he says he’s enjoying the fields, and open spaces around his new home in Sunderland.

Nonetheless, he says you’re never far from a possible incident, even out here, away from the city.

“There’s obviously been a lot more mass shootings more recently, but, we rarely go to malls, and stuff, where they hang out,” Knell said. “But you just have to always be aware of what’s going on. My wife is, she’s in a wheelchair, so we’re easier targets than some. And, just to help protect her. And if [I] have to defend myself, I’ll defend myself."

Every incident is different, O'Donnell said. Sometimes you run. Sometimes you shelter in place.

You just need to be ready, and he said he hoped more Vermonters would start thinking about it, and preparing.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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