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Troopers test skills, stamina

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

WaKEENEY -- Troop D of the Kansas Highway Patrol was preparing for the unthinkable Thursday night.

Five troopers as well as rangemasters running the exercise were at Trego Grade School, practicing how to search a large, unlit building for possible bad guys -- at night.

"Biggest thing we try to instill is safety, and you're protecting other people's lives," said Master Trooper and Head Rangemaster Terry Stithem, who was running the exercise with help from his assistants. "And use our tactics and our equipment to our advantage. To stop an active shooter and protect lives."

Classroom scenarios, in particular, take on added meaning after what happened in Newtown, Conn., in December, when 20 children and six teachers were killed by a shooter.

"It's a terrible thing; it just makes us realize we've got to be prepared for that," Stithem said. "Everybody says it will never happen in their spot.

"It will happen somewhere. It will happen in Kansas sometime," he added. "We just got to be prepared for it."

This is the third year Troop D has prepared for a shooter scenario. Two years ago at the high school and last year at the middle school, they practiced an "active shooter" scenario, where they rush toward the gunfire. Stithem called it a "dynamic entry."

"Our troopers pursued them, arrested them or engaged them," Stithem said.

This year, they wanted to do something different, and practice a search scenario, methodically checking a building room by room for bad guys. For the first time, they used lights attached to their Glock pistols. The troopers had used lights before, attached to their M4 carbines or Remington shotguns, but the lights attached to their side arms was something new.

"One thing is, you find it pretty tiring," said trooper Tod Hileman, public resource officer for Troop D.

"After searching the whole building, your arm gets tired holding the gun up, your finger gets tired pushing the button (to turn on the light). So, it really works on your stamina," Hileman said.

"These scenarios, even though you're (just) getting shot with pellets, it still feels real," he added. "You're hyped up, you're wanting to push and go, go, go, then you got to calm yourself back down. It really works against you physically and mentally. Good training."

There are approximately 45 troopers in Troop D, which covers the northwest corner of the state. The last few weeks, they have traveled here to get some work in with their weapons on the firing range, then practice the shooter scenarios at the school.

"I appreciate the schools. They've been very, very cooperative," Stithem said. "That's helped us, because there's not a lot of big buildings, to use all the rooms. They let us use everything here."

Since it's practice, and practice using lights on their pistols for the first time, Stithem told the troopers before the drills began "you guys will make mistakes tonight -- that's what we're here for."

What to do when a shooter is in a building has evolved since the Columbine tragedy in 1999. Back then, law enforcement officials first on the scene were trained differently.

"Used to be, you waited for a team to go in. Now, you can actually go in by yourself, if you thought that was reasonable to go in," Stithem said. "You used to set up a perimeter and wait. Now, you make entry as quick as you can, to stop the violence."

Stithem, who has been with KHP for 27 years, and a rangemaster for 20 years, has heard good things from troopers participating in the drills.

"Very positive" feedback, he said. "Especially our younger troopers are learning a lot, because they haven't had the experience of some of the other guys.

"They feel a lot more comfortable going into a school if they got called to it, or any shooting situation."

Stithem said he hopes to continue the shooter exercises in the future.

"We'd like to do it at least every year," he said, "just to keep fluent in it."