Drivers passing the Jewish Community Services Building on July 23 would have noticed quite the scene on the corner of Arch and 21st streets.
Yellow police tape surrounded the building, while a black SWAT van sat parked on Arch Street. Inside, a group of building employees and SWAT officers milled about in the entryway and lobby.
They were all there as part of a live active shooter training exercise, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Police Department. The exercise, which included a gunman using a firearm, provided building employees with an opportunity to see how they would react to an active shooter scenario. The exercise also give police an opportunity to train and become familiar with the building.
“There are a whole lot of yahoos out there in the world,” said Sgt. William Frazier with the PPD’s SWAT unit. “It’s gotten to the point where no place is safe, not so much that anybody’s more of a target than the next. More it’s everybody has the potential to be a target.”
A few minutes before 5:17 p.m., a SWAT officer indicated to the handful of employees in the lobby — who were there volunteering to act as gunshot victims — that they should cover their ears.
That’s when a man strode into the Jewish Community Services Building and shot several blanks, both into the air and the neighboring room.
The gunman, who was really a member of the SWAT team, then got on the elevator, leaving the smoky scent of gunpowder behind him.
Still in the lobby, the employee volunteers reached for their cell phones, which had begun to vibrate. That was followed up by a text message that read, “DRILL DRILL DRILL There is an active threat situation in the building. Lock down and shelter in place until clear. This is a drill.”
On the upper floors of the building, the gunman continued his rampage, yelling that he was looking for Donna, while employees quietly hid in locked rooms.
Frank Riehl, director of security at the Jewish Federation, said that the organizers wanted to make the training as realistic as possible, so they gave the gunman a motive. In this case, the shooter was supposed to be a disgruntled former employee who had returned to go after a woman named Donna in the Jewish Federation’s human relations department.
They chose that scenario because it was a situation that was more common than others, Riehl said.
“We thought that having it play out like that would hit home more and have a teaching impact for folks than if we just had the guy going around willy-nilly and not saying anything and just shooting rounds off,” Riehl said.
At 5:28 p.m., the first group of police officers entered the building and headed onto the elevator, with the goal of finding the gunman. They succeeded and were followed by another group of officers, who did the same. The training lasted until about 9 p.m., Riehl said, so that all available police officers in the surrounding districts would be able to participate.
The officers who participated are the same officers who would respond to an actual shooter at the Jewish Community Services Building, Frazier said.
“It helps the cops,” he said. “The first time they have to come in here isn’t the first time they were here because they’ve been here just for training. So they get to see it and look at it and make some friends with the security people here, and hopefully we’re developing some relationships.”
Paramedics also participated. The paramedics arrived after 6 p.m., by which time the volunteers had already left, so the volunteers did not actually wind up playing gunshot victims.
At 6 p.m., Riehl called for a pause, so that employees in the building could leave.
Overall, the exercise went well, Riehl said.
“Things like this are very important,” he said. “You do it to train people, so they can react accordingly in a real-life situation, but you also do it to see how you can improve your policy and procedures for an incident like this in your building.”