On-Scene Exclusive: Towns County holds active shooter drill, tests medical response

Towns County EMS

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Realistic is the most accurate adjective to describe an active shooter drill which took place in Towns County on the morning of Friday, May 3, 2019. The full-scale training, directed jointly by the Georgia Mountains Healthcare Coalition and the Northeast Georgia Health System, was designed primarily to test the response of emergency medical providers.

Towns County active shooter drill

A Towns County deputy stands beside a subdued “shooter”

The mock scenario took place outside of Dr. Samuel Church’s office, located behind Zaxby’s restaurant, off State Route 76 in eastern Hiawassee. “Victims” were staged – complete with graphic, cosmetic injuries – at various points throughout the crime scene. Some were in open view, while others were in less obvious locations. The narrative, previously reported by FYN, read that two, escaped inmates – members of the brutal “Ghostface Gang” – shot innocent bystanders outside of the medical provider’s office.

Towns County EMS

A young “gunshot victim” awaits emergency medical treatment

At 9:11 am, Towns County 911 dispatched emergency responders to the scene of the simulated crisis. Within one minute, law enforcement officers from Hiawassee Police Department and Towns County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the masacre, blocking the roadway with patrol vehicles before “fatally” subduing two shooters in skilled succession. One the threat had been neutralized, four Towns County Sheriff’s deputies secured a perimeter around the scene, and Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith could be seen directing a hysterical actor to a suitable location. Along with civilians, a law enforcement officer was said to have been “fatally shot” during the mock attack.

Towns County EMS

Brandi Garrett, a resident of Hayesville, volunteered to play the role of a fatally injured “victim”

Towns County Fire and Rescue responders soon arrived at the location, lights flashing and sirens screaming, rendering aid while triaging “victims” according to the severity of their injuries. “Victims” who were fatally wounded were quickly tagged to alert incoming responders of their expired conditions.

Towns County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) raced to the crisis, providing urgent treatment on multiple casualties. Three ambulances transported the “victims” to Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee, and three of the “patients” warranted an air-flight to trauma centers. FYN spoke with EMS Director Ken Nicholson during the drill as he assisted a role-player who suffered a gunshot wound to the abdominal area. “The training was laid out good,” the lead paramedic said. “The victims were scattered in different places, and it went well, working with available resources.”

“I think it went well,” agreed Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith, once the exercise had concluded. “It was about as realistic as we could have hoped. While the drill was designed mainly to test medical response, the addition of law enforcement created an authentic scenario. The drill was realistic, and the stress involved helped induce the right mindset.” Chief Smith was the commanding officer of the drill, as it occurred within the city’s jurisdiction. Smith explained that in a real-life situation at that particular location, Main Street would have been partitioned to eliminate traffic, and the media would have likely been staged at a nearby plaza. Georgia Bureau of Investigation would have been tasked with investigating the tragic scene. Towns County Sheriff’s Captain Jim Couch explained that the Towns County Courthouse and Towns County Schools simulated a lock-down for the sake of security during the drill.

Towns County Fire and Rescue

Towns County Fire and Rescue prepares a “victim” for transport

Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Brandon Walls observed the agencies’ response techniques, noting areas that could benefit from additional training. Walls described the drill as “quality,” adding that EMA plans to “hotwash” items with the fire department. Clearview at Chatuge Clinic Director Wendell Farmer was present throughout the exercise, along with registered nurse and paramedic, Sherry Minchew, an artistic participant who created the detailed, physical effects on the “injured” role-players.

An active shooter drill was simultaneously held in Blairsville at the farmers market venue, with “patient” transports arriving at Union General Hospital.

Feature Photo: Towns County EMS transports a “gunshot victim” to an awaiting ambulance for treatment


Full scenario for upcoming Towns-Union active shooter training

active shooter drill

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Officials are in the process of planning a full-scale emergency response drill in Towns and Union Counties, consisting of a prison break and active shooter scenario. Meetings were held April 15, and today, April 24, at the Emergency Operations Center in Blairsville. The exercise is scheduled Friday, May 3, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The drill is directed jointly by the Georgia Mountains Healthcare Coalition and the Northeast Georgia Health System. The purpose is to review local and regional coordination in an effort to address preparedness gaps and identify areas for improvement in response to an active shooter scenario. Locations of the training will include a Hiawassee doctor’s office and Union County Farmers Market. Medical response evaluations will occur at Chatuge Regional and Union General Hospitals. Multiple “casualties” and “fatalities” will ensue during the mock crisis.

The focus in Towns and Union Counties is to review the response, coordination and communications among community partners.  To the extent possible, organizers asking for emergency agencies to participate as much as possible considering their own available resources.  The more effort that is exhibited towards situational realism, the better the training, the manual for the drill reads.

The dramatization script accompanying the training follows:

“Local law enforcement within the Georgia Mountain Health Care Coalition has noticed as significant increase in crime and the number of local incarcerated prisoners associated with the ‘Ghostface Gangsters’ – This gang originated within the Georgia prison system, but has expanded into the free world.

“The Ghostface Gangsters are very violent and will not hesitate to shoot anyone.  The Anti-Defamation League has described it as white supremacist organization with a few select black members.  The crimes of the group are especially heinous with no boundaries of violence.  They are linked to the recent killing of two Georgia correctional officers and were able to escape in a prison work bus.

“Over the past week, there have been two additional carefully planned and successful prison escapes; each group included several of the Ghostface gang associates.  Prisoner sightings have been confirmed and eye witnesses indicate the movement to be in a northeastwardly direction.”

Scenario Update:  “It is a beautiful May spring morning in Blue Ridge, GA with the temperature at about 60F.  9-1-1 reports that a dark sedan and one green Toyota Tundra pickup have been “car-jacked”.  The car was commandeered at the Blue Ridge McDonalds on Highway 515 and the truck was taken at gunpoint just a half mile away in the Home Depot parking lot.  The victim at Home Depot said he was overtaken by 2 shaved-head white guys with multiple facial and body tattoos.  The McDonald’s victim reported two assailants.  One was a female about 150 lbs. with short black hair.  She reportedly helped a big white guy over-power him and steal his sedan at McDonalds.  The sedan headed east towards Blairsville and the truck taken at Home Depot seemed to be heading the same direction.  An “all-points” BOLO was issued at about 0925 and landline direct calls were made to law enforcement at Fannin, Union and Towns County Sheriff’s offices.  A police alert was issued with the BOLO advertizing the seriousness of these sky-jacking.  These robbers represented a potential threat to life or great bodily harm to anyone in their way; they were seen with tactical type weapons and high capacity magazines.

“An estimated time of 0945, the sedan was noticed at the Farmer’s Market in Blairsville and not long thereafter, the green Toyota pickup was spotted entering the area of 85 Seasons Ln – Dr. Church’s parking lot.  It was later known that cell phones had been taken from the auto victims and the two groups were coordinating a rendezvous in Hiawassee or Hayesville, NC.

“In Blairsville, the Market was busy with vendors setting up booths and putting out various products.  As the escapees were walking toward the covered market area, they began firing at random.  Vendors and on-lookers began scattering in all directions with countless numbers of shots being fired.  Also, Fridays is a busy day at the Church Clinic in Hiawassee. This is the time for follow up visits and renewing of pharmacy prescriptions.  The two escapees were seeking drugs and they knew the clinic had them on site.  They entered the clinic with weapons waving and began shooting employees and patients while demanding access to the drugs.  Both locations were now in a heightened state of shock and chaos.

“A few minutes after the initial commotion, the gunman at the Farmer’s Market jumped into their vehicle to elude law enforcement.  The perpetrators in Hiawassee were taking an inordinate amount of time by methodically shooting innocent victims as they were trying to escape the office and parking area.

Scenario Update:: “Local law enforcement was alerted to the situation at both locations.  Blairsville PD and UCSO had stopped all traffic on GA Highway 515 at the new market area entrance and blocked the intersection at Weaver Road which was a spur access to the market.  As police were advancing on the parking area, they engaged the two gunmen firing from the escaping vehicle.  Heavy gun fire ensued causing serious collateral damage.  Multiple casualties were lying in and around the grounds of the market.  After a few minutes, there was almost deadly silence; it appeared that both gunmen in the vehicle had been stopped through the police action.

“Hiawassee PD and TCSO were closing in on the clinic based on eyewitnesses seeing a very suspicious Toyota truck with people holding guns in the parking lot.  Law enforcement blocked all access in and out of the clinic and stopped traffic on Main Street.  As a tactical maneuver was progressing towards the area, officers realized something terrible was happening.  They heard shooting noises and witnessed people scattering in all directions.  Police quickened their advance and started closing-in on the truck where they noticed what appeared to be the female alleged perpetrator waiting in the vehicle.  She was in the driver’s seat and began to quickly move the vehicle towards the exit.  Her associate was still outside the truck.  When he saw the police, he began firing in their direction.  This spawned the same action from the female as she started shooting at officers but she was quickly neutralized.  At the same time, the associate continued to advance on foot while shooting wildly at anyone and anything to include  law enforcement.   The pursuing gunman was now forcing “death by cop”.  He began running faster towards the officers while firing the remaining rounds in his weapon.  His desires were met!”

Scenario Update: Recovery “It did not take long for the local and national news networks to have helicopters and broadcast news vehicles in route to both locations.  Initial reports were erratic but it was unofficially released that Blairsville had 5 dead and 10 injured not including the alleged perpetrators.

“The Hiwassee scene remained in a panic mode for awhile but one officer was severely wounded and at first count, 6 were known dead, 4 in critical condition and 5 with unknown injuries.  Both gunmen (one female and male) were dead at the scene in the parking area of the Ingles store.

“At about 1110 hours, EMS and other first responders were allowed at the scene after both facilities were cleared and determined to be of no further threat.  Some victims were triaged and treated at the scene while all others were transported to Union General and Chatuge hospitals.  Erlanger was providing airlift capability and transporting the more severe to Chatanooga. Clay and Cherokee County EMS were providing all the resources available.”

Local law enforcement, fire and rescue crews, and emergency medical staff will participate in the drill. “The exercise is written with the healthcare organizations goals in mind, but it offers an opportunity for the community to be involved for training and skill development within the discipline of each group,” the situational manual explains.  “The National Planning Scenarios and the establishment of the National Preparedness Priorities have steered the focus of homeland security toward a capabilities-based approach.  Capabilities-based planning focuses on planning under uncertainty, since the next danger or disaster can never be forecast with complete accuracy.  Therefore, capabilities-based planning takes an all-hazards approach to planning and preparation that builds on capabilities which can be applied to a wide variety of incidents.”

Emergency medical providers to participate in active shooter drill

active shooter drill Towns County

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Georgia Mountain Healthcare Coalition, which consists of Chatuge Regional and Union General Hospitals, is planning an active shooter drill designed for emergency medical providers. The four hour drill will take place in early May in Towns and Union Counties. In sum, the exercise will involve a prison break and active shooter scenerio. Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee and Union General Hospital in Blairsville will provide mock treatment for 15 “victims.”

Georgia’s Healthcare Preparedness Program is directly funded by the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) through the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP). HPP’s mission is to prepare the health care system to save lives through the support of regional health care coalitions (HCC). HCCs are groups of health care and response organizations that collaborate to prepare for and respond to medical surge events. HCCs incentivize diverse and often competitive health care organizations to work together.  They are comprised of Banks, Dawson, Habersham, Hall, Lumpkin, Rabun, Stephens, Towns, Union and White Counties.

“The exercise is written with the healthcare organizations goals in mind, but it offers an opportunity for the community to be involved for training and skill development within the discipline of each group,” the situational manual explains.  “The National Planning Scenarios and the establishment of the National Preparedness Priorities have steered the focus of homeland security toward a capabilities-based approach.  Capabilities-based planning focuses on planning under uncertainty, since the next danger or disaster can never be forecast with complete accuracy.  Therefore, capabilities-based planning takes an all-hazards approach to planning and preparation that builds on capabilities which can be applied to a wide variety of incidents.

“The Homeland Security and Exercise Evaluation Program (HSEEP) and our own healthcare standards governing bodies emphasize capabilities-based planning.  The intent is to identify a baseline assessment of their homeland security efforts.  We do this by comparing current capabilities against the Core Capabilities of our established industry standards.”

Evaluation of the exercise is based on the exercise objectives and aligned capabilities, capability targets, and critical tasks, which are documented in Exercise Evaluation Guides (EEG).  Evaluators have EEGs for each of their assigned areas.  Additionally, players will be asked to complete participant feedback forms.  These documents, coupled with facilitator observations and notes, will be used to evaluate the exercise and compile an After-Action Report.

Seventh-grade student delivers powerful speech on school shootings

Towns County school safety

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – The sudden sound of automatic gunfire rang out in the courtroom of the Towns County Courthouse on Thursday, Dec. 18, a simulated start to a powerful, passionate speech on school shootings, delivered by Eastgate Life Academy student Hannah Minchew.

Minchew plans to address state leaders in Atlanta early next year in an effort to shine a spotlight on a significant subject, one which is clearly close to her heart.

“Did you not here that? Why are you still all sitting here? Do you even know what that was? That was the sound of an assault rifle,” the seventh grader began with conviction, referencing the Columbine shooting, “That was the sound heard by those students on April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris started one of the worst school massacres in history. They killed 13 people, and wounded 24 others before turning the guns on themselves and committing suicide.

Hannah Minchew

Hannah Minchew, a seventh grade student at Eastgate Life Academy

“Did you know that there has been 494 school shootings? 494, and 18 of those have occured in Georgia, and in most every case of a school shooting, the signs were there. These attackers had planned their attacks for weeks to months, but no one noticed,” Minchew continued, leading the 12-year-old to recap the warning signs present prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

“But are our schools really safe? Do barriers, locked doors, and armed guards really make us safe? Does the banning of assault rifles really make us safe? These are all hard questions with no easy answers. I believe that it takes all of this and much more. It takes everyone in our community being vigilant and aware,” Minchew pleaded, concluding with a heartfelt, “Will you notice?”

Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw praised Minchew’s speech, acknowledging that it was, “sore, sad, subject matter.”

“We have worked, as commissioner, we have worked with Sheriff Clinton, and your school Superintendent Darren Berrong,” Commissioner Bradshaw said, “We’ve had several meetings on school safety, on what we can do to try to make our school safer, and that’s why we put on the other DARE officer, hoping that it would make a difference. Our school campus is so spread out.”

FYN has extensively reported on school security in our counties of coverage, and we will continue to pursue future developments.

Board of Education to hire second school resource officer, discussion of arming educators ensues

Towns county school safety

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education convened for a Special Called Meeting on Thursday, July 19, to vote on hiring a second school resource officer to protect Towns County Schools. The Board unanomosly approved the motion. Superintendent Darren Berrong met with Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw and Sheriff Chris Clinton earlier in the day, and the three officials agreed that it is in the best interest of Towns County students to employ an additional officer. Towns County Schools will fund 75 percent of the cost of employment, with 25 percent derived from the Towns County Sheriff’s Office budget. Berrong estimated the cost at $30,000 per year, which will include employee benefits. Berrong stated that the funding had been previously figured into the 2018-2019 school budget.

Discussion of the possibility of arming select school staff ensued, with Board member Robert Williams vocalizing opposition to the notion. Berrong stated that additional dialog will take place as to the specifics. The extent of information released to the public concerning the issue is unknown at the time of publication, as mention was made to keep aspects confidential due to safety concerns. “Only the Board of Education would know,” Berrong said.

If enacted, Berrong asserted that “serious restrictions” would apply, and that staff must comply with state regulations along with stringent measures set forth by the Board. The decision on whether to carry a firearm will be on a voluntary basis, said Berrong.

FetchYournews (FYN) met with Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw the following morning to gather his thoughts on the topic, and while he voiced adament agreement with the hiring of a second school resource officer, Bradshaw said that he was unaware of a discussion related the arming of staff taking place. “An additional officer is definitely the right thing to do for the safety of the children,” Bradshaw stated, declining to offer an opinion on additional precautions due to insufficient knowledge on the Board of Education’s precise plans.

At any rate, the final decision on arming educators lies with the school board.

“The law allows the school board to make such decisions, and I am confident that they will make the decision they feel is best for our school,” Sheriff Clinton tells FYN, “The Office of Sheriff is more than happy to work with our schools in any way. We are thankful for the job they do in teaching and helping our youth.

FYN inquired as to when an active shooter drill will take place, with Berrong directing FYN to Roy Perren, the facility director for Towns County Schools, for specific details.


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