BUFFALO, NY - The Erie County Sheriff's Department has the area's largest SWAT team, and would no doubt be among the first units summoned to deal with a mass shooting incident, should one ever occur in Western New York.
"To really and truly be prepared for something like this is very, very difficult," said Captain Gregory Savage, who leads the elite team of emergency law enforcement responders.
"We do plan for active shooter scenarios, and specifically school shootings," Savage confirmed for WGRZ-TV. "Not only is the SWAT team trained in how to respond to these things, but we have also trained our patrol officers in how to respond to mass shooting incidents."
But Savage also concedes that as well trained as officers may be in their response, there is more often than not an unfortunate pattern in the mass shooting scenario.
"Unfortunately, usually by the time the police arrive it's over, or at least a significant amount of damage has already been done," he said.
It is through that experience, that the tactics on dealing with a mass shooting scenario have changed in the course of Savage's 28-year law enforcement career.
"The tactics that we employ have changed, all the way from our patrol people to our SWAT team," said Savage. "Prior to Columbine it was to establish a perimeter, and try and find out exactly what was going on before they would go inside. I think since then, we have realized you can't do that anymore. Even the first patrol officer on the scene of these types of incidents, they have to go in right away, because every minute that goes by is the potential for more people to be shot."
Savage says the "enter first" practice has been adopted by law enforcement agencies throughout the country, as more mass shootings occur, not only at schools, but also at public gathering spots like shopping malls and movie theaters.
"A school is probably better prepared for this type of thing as far as how they train teachers, or whether they train students in how to react, such going into lock down procedures, where they try to isolate the students from somebody who's in the building," said Savage. "It's a little bit harder to do that in a mall and I don't think they take as active a role in that type of environment in how to respond to something like this."
"Situations like this were practically unheard of before Columbine...I know there was once incident in the 1930's where some bombs were used at an elementary school and killed a large number of kids, but that was something that most people didn't even remember. There's a lot of discussion these days on what you can do to prepare or prevent these sort of incidents, but it's a very tough question to answer."
Savage says the best practice, and one being currently employed, is to meet often with school leaders.
"We speak to them frequently, we assist them with training, we have taught teachers how to respond, and we also let them know how we will respond, so they would know what to expect from us if a situation like this were ever to happen."
Savage, who also has a six year old son, was like many other parents...shocked and saddened by what occurred. And like many others, he expressed concern that many districts no longer have school resource officers.
"In my opinion, that's probably the only thing that could make a difference, is having a police officer on location, all the time. This was something that became common, but because of budget cutbacks, it was curtailed. When you look at the size of a school, the number of kids that are in there, and the number of employees working there, it doesn't seem unreasonable to have one sworn law enforcement officer assigned to that school at all times," he said.