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Drill Aims to Help School Prepare for the Worst

A chemical release in the cafeteria of Bridgewater-Raritan High School causes mass casualties. Armed assailants fire on students and staff. A hostage is barricaded and a State Police emergency helicopter lands to airlift a trauma victim.

This chaotic scene will play out in the form of a drill Sunday at the high school on Garretson Road to prepare emergency responders for coping with a crisis situation similar to what occurred at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech this past spring.

"Something like this is probably one of the worse scenarios you would encounter in law enforcement," said Bridgewater Police Chief Richard Borden. "It's long overdue that we do something like this."

Most school days, the campus is filled with close to 3,000 people, including staff and students. On Sunday, upward of 200 volunteers will cover the grounds and how emergency responders manage to prioritize their injuries and take down active shooters will later be critiqued for educational purposes.

"We'll identify areas where we may be deficient, where we can correct things and what we're good at," said Robert Szkodny, a former Bridgewater deputy police chief who now heads the township's office of emergency management, which is coordinating the full-scale, four-hour training exercise.

Not only will it test the skills and resources of local police, fire and emergency medical teams, but also those of the public works, health and administrative departments, as well as school officials.

Somerset County agencies, including the sheriff and prosecutor's offices, the emergency response team with its tactical force and hostage-rescue negotiators and office of emergency management will be represented, too.

Sheriff Frank Provenzano and High School Principal James Riccobono said they will be there as observers.

While staff and students practice lockdowns at least once a year and written procedures for responding to bomb scares are reviewed, there is a distinct benefit to simulating a tense, realistic calamity, Riccobono said.

Mayor Patricia Flannery said her role would be to keep residents informed throughout any such horrific occurrence. The value of involving so many agencies in a practice exercise is immeasurable, she said.

"We can never be too well-trained in dealing with emergencies," she said.

Emergency management officials from five other communities - Peapack-Gladstone, Raritan, Bernards Township, Branchburg and Franklin Township in Hunterdon County - are offering their services to help simulate the rampage.

"This is an effort of coordination and cooperation," said Szkodny.

"Victims" will be rushed via ambulances to the emergency room at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, where personnel are preparing to manage an onslaught of victims.

Bound Brook police, Immaculata High School in Somerville and the Somerset County chapter of the American Red Cross also will be playing roles in the mock catastrophe.

Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Bridgewater police at (908) 722-4111 and ask for Rob Hanlon, deputy OEM coordinator.

Similar training exercises have taken place nationwide since Colombine and Virgina Tech.

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