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Using dummy weapons, law enforcement clears the teacher's lounge at Pacelli Catholic High School on June 2, 2023, during an exercise that supposes an armed intruder could be hiding among the staff members. (Metro Wire photo)

Now in its 10th year, Rescue Task Force training returns to area schools this week

By Brandi Makuski

Portage County — In June 2015, an inaugural training event was underway at a then-vacant building at 5001 Joerns Dr., now home to Gamber-Johnson.

Cries for help filled the air. At the time, the building was a poorly lit warehouse with a lot of hiding places in cubicles and dark corners; the perfect location for an armed shooter — or shooters — to hide as paramedics and kevlar-clad EMTs searched for victims under the protection of armed law enforcement.

At the time, it was a new kind of training. Taking cues from the mass-casualty events across the country, local law enforcement and fire/EMS departments create training scenarios each year based on real events.

Two of the men who helped create the local Rescue Task Force (RTF), Portage Co. Deputy Bob Wanta (now retired) and Lt. Ron Heibler from the Stevens Point Fire Department, said the idea arose in the emergency responder community following the Columbine shooting in 1999.

“Most of the people who survived that event were saved by a cop who threw them in the back of a squad [car] and raced to the hospital because the paramedics were kept far away from the scene,” Heibler said during a previous training event. “We knew that had to change.”

What is Rescue Task Force?

The Portage Co. RTF program was launched in 2015, modeled after a similar program in Milwaukee, and was the first of its kind in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee Co. Each year since then, officers from the Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office, Wisconsin State Patrol, and Department of Natural Resources, police departments in Stevens Point, Plover, and at UW-Stevens Point, combine with area fire and EMS agencies, dispatcher, hospitals, and other entities, to undergo an active shooter and mass casualty training event.

While nothing so devastating has ever occurred in Portage Co., the RTF has been utilized locally. In 2016, Bancroft man Larry Sanchez shot and killed his wife, Lisa, and then held responding officers at bay during a four-hour standoff. Early on, emergency responders had no way of knowing how many people were injured, so medics entered the scene simultaneously under the protection of armed officers.

“We never would have done it that way before [RTF],” said Heibler. “We never even would have thought about it.”

Local emergency responders faced another test in 2017. What was initially believed to be an active shooter at Ben Franklin Jr. High resulted in a massive response by area law enforcement and medics. Law enforcement quickly learned it was a false alarm accidentally triggered by a student. Also false were the reports from students of gunshots in the building — but they mistook the sounds of slamming classroom doors following the alarm as the sounds of gunfire. All told, three district buildings were placed on lockdown briefly before students were reunited with their parents.

In both situations, RTF training was a key factor in their response, Heibler said.

Since its inception, the exercise has been held at the Stevens Point Municipal Airport, area schools, Sentry Insurance, and other large buildings around Portage Co.

Over the years, the activity has attracted theater students from UW-Stevens Point, some using their makeup skills to simulate gunshot and other wounds, as well as community members, school staff, at least one area pastor, and sometimes, children and spouses of area First Responders. Each is assigned a role to play in a live shooter scenario.

Lt. Joe Johnson from SPPD said this year’s training is similar to previous years and includes a presentation from the FBI before First Responders are broken into crews for the training.

Participating in this year’s event are law enforcement, firefighters, and EMTs from Stevens Point, Plover, Hull, UW-Stevens Point, Wautoma, Plainfield, Waushara, Amherst, Almond-Bancroft, and others, Johnson said.

When is Rescue Task Force?

The annual training event will take place in area schools on the following dates between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.:

June 6: Almond-Bancroft School, 1336 Elm St. in Almond.
June 7: Plover-Whiting Elementary, 1400 Hoover Ave. in Plover.
June 10: Ben Franklin Junior High, 2000 Polk St. in Stevens Point.

Neighbors and nearby businesses may see or hear emergency response vehicles and personnel, but anyone not associated with the exercise is asked to avoid the area.