SWAT teams train, compete at state Preparedness Center
WHITESTOWN — The May 14 shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo was a reminder to law enforcement that mass shootings can happen anywhere at any time, furthering the need for advanced, realistic and hands-on training to deal with active shooters.
Which is the precise focus of the training during Tactical Week at the New York State Preparedness Training Center in Whitestown this week. Five SWAT teams from across the state — including the Utica Metro SWAT team — were drilled again and again in live simulations for dealing with active shooters, hostage situations, barricaded subjects and more.
Among the teams training this week was the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, which includes the City of Buffalo. The Erie County SWAT team did not respond to the Tops shooting, but it was still in their backyard.
“That’s our community as well, being Erie County. It can happen without warning anywhere in America,” said Erie County Detective Ben Pisa on Thursday.
“That’s why we’re here, that’s why we train; to make sure that if it happens, we’re ready to respond.”
The New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services operates the Preparedness Training Center in Whitestown, offering a wide variety of training scenarios and classes on advanced police work — everything from bomb disposal to K9 handling. This week was the Center’s fourth Tactical Week, focused entirely on highly dangerous SWAT operations.
“We bring together advanced tactical teams from across the state, to participate in scenarios based on real things that they see out in their home jurisdictions,” said Meghan Dudley, intelligence analyst and spokesperson for Homeland Security.
“These teams routinely face the most dangerous parts of law enforcement today, so it’s imperative that they train in a realistic environment, like we have here at the state Preparedness Center.”
The operators at the Center use everything from actors playing shooters and victims to elaborately constructed sets to make the training scenarios as realistic as possible. Chief among these offerings is the Cityscape, which recreates a real city street complete with blacktop, sidewalks, street lights and multiple different store fronts and apartments.
On Thursday, Det. Pisa and his team were told there was a man in town with a handgun in his waistband. As the Erie County SWAT team advanced, the man opened fire — with blanks — and ran into a fully furnished, two-story apartment building in Cityscape. He left behind several actors pretending to be shot, wounded and scared.
“This facility is really, really special. It’s the only one in the state, it’s really the only one in many states like it. It is world-class, provides all sorts of opportunities that you don’t get elsewhere,” Pisa described.
Pisa said discussing these types of scenarios in a classroom cannot compare with the hands-on, in-person training at the Preparedness Center.
Another benefit of this training is being able to see the skills and tactics of other agencies from across the state, officials agreed.
“One thing I love about this little initiative here is that we get to see what teams are doing from across the state. We have a way of doing things, it’s our way, we’ve honed it to fit our needs,” said Utica Police Captain James Holt, who oversees the Utica Metro SWAT team.
“But every other team is in the same boat. They have a way. Maybe Erie County does things with the same fundamentals, but with a different way. So I’d like to see what Erie County does because maybe there’s some things that I do that I could improve from that, and make our way a little better. At the end of the day, we’re just looking to get better.”
Each of the five SWAT teams was graded at the end of each training scenario based on several factors, including time, performance and safety, officials said. At the end of the week, the Utica Metro SWAT Team was declared the “winner” of the competition, officials said.
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