It took months of planning that involved coordinating outside agencies, an empty hospital floor and hundreds of rounds of blank bullets – and it was all a drill. During training earlier this summer, clinicians and staff at Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center not only discussed what to do in an active-shooter scenario, they practiced it.
More than 600 associates and clinicians at Holmes Regional participated in true-to-life drills designed to educate and prepare hospital staff. Health First partnered with local law enforcement – county sheriff’s deputies and firefighters, police and firefighters from Melbourne, and West Melbourne police – to create five half-day drill programs over the summer. One each for Holmes Regional, and Health First’s Palm Bay, Viera and Cape Canaveral hospitals, and a clinical office facility.
All Health First employees are required to complete e-learning modules yearly on a number of topics pertinent to working in healthcare, and one of these is what to do when confronted by a gunman. But as Brett Esrock, CEO, Health First Hospital Division, pointed out, there’s a difference between knowing what to do and doing what you know.
“It’s very different when you’re doing a module on the computer. When you’re in a live event, your adrenaline’s pumping, your heart rate is up – you have to react very quickly.”
In the scenario, participants are asked to perform simulated tasks identical to their assigned work duties. They must follow life-saving instructions despite the noise and confusion occurring at the scene. Afterward, participants reconvene in a “debrief” where they watch a video replay of their simulation and discuss what they did right – and what they could do better.
“These drills are an opportunity for us to not only to help keep our patients and visitors safe – but our associates, as well. We’re very pleased with the rate of participation and eagerness our associates have shown. It demonstrates their dedication and commitment to protecting our most vulnerable – as well as themselves,” said Robin Rice, System Director of Security for Health First, who is largely responsible for creating and directing the drills.
“We have, in consultation with our law enforcement and first responder colleagues, designed this drill to be as true-to-life as possible. It does involve the discharge of real guns (with blank ammunition.) It does include language, tone and conduct one might not ordinarily expect to see in a public setting – but very well may in a dangerous and hostile scenario. We will be videotaping each drill and playing it back with associates after they complete their turn – walking them through their actions and responses. We had many visitors with us from healthcare systems across the state and Southeast U.S. I am proud that this program will serve as a model for other organizations to follow,” Rice continued.
Health First utilized an unused wing of the hospital for this activity, and safety officials took every precaution, including soundproofing the wing, overcommunicating to staff, visitors and patients – including signage throughout the facility – that ensured our valued patients and visitors were not affected or exposed to noise or activity in any way.
“As we have all seen in recent months, acts of violence can and do occur anywhere, and when least expected. We understand that some – perhaps many – associates will be frightened. That is a major reason we are conducting these drills,” Esrock said.
“As a healthcare organization, we are tasked with being prepared for the worst at all times – whether it’s a hurricane or other natural disaster, a traumatic multi-vehicle Interstate accident … or a global pandemic. We are expected (and we expect of ourselves) to be prepared to respond. We last staged similar drills in 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic and the response by associates then was overwhelmingly positive. I am very proud of the robust, true-to-life program our security team has created,” Esrock continued.
Health First had been communicating with associates for weeks about the drills and providing sign-up opportunities, providing extensive information with associates about the nature of the drill and what they might expect during it. However, many associates said actually going through a live simulation was a much different feeling and experience.
Dorothy Dammer has been a volunteer with Health First for over 15 years, currently supporting visitor and patient registration at Holmes Regional. She decided to sign up for a drill due to what she sees all too often on the evening news. Dammer was anxiously awaiting her scheduled drill prior to being escorted to the drill location.
“I think it’s wonderful that Health First is offering these learning opportunities and going through such detail. It’s very sad that something so terrible can happen, and we see it on the news frequently. But Health First wants to make sure I have the knowledge and tools to protect myself and others, and I wanted to make sure that I took advantage of that opportunity.”
Of those who participated in some of the first drills, there was a consensus that frequent communications with staff in advance of the drill, while helpful, simply couldn’t replace the reality of the scene they would soon find themselves in.
“You’re overwhelmed. You don’t really know what to do. I never thought to move the bed to block the door, for instance - or even shut the door! It was a scary feeling, but it was good to play back video and discuss what we had just gone through – what we did right, wrong, and how to improve our reaction,” said Sally King, a longtime volunteer and people-mover operator.
“I had the feeling that this would be real – I actually had that anxiety. But I think it was wonderful training,” said Deidre Runyan, a Holmes Regional operating room nurse. “Even though it’s a scenario, it was nice to put yourself in a situation that is so real. So that if it does happen, I can remember that I went through this.”
King hid in a bathroom and held the door shut with all her weight, while Runyan closed herself in a patient room and rolled a heavy, locking patient bed behind the door to block it and provide extra resistance.
“They said, ‘Hide.’ All I could think of was to hide,” King said. “Get out of the way.”
“Run and block. Hide, and if you have to … fight,” Runyan said.
The event's participants at Holmes Regional Medical Center included law enforcement and first responders from:
- Melbourne Police Department
- West Melbourne Police Department
- Brevard County Sheriff’s Office
- Brevard County Fire Rescue
- Melbourne Fire Department
Visit HF.org/news_and_events to find out what’s happening at Health First.