NASHVILLE – The first 911 calls came in just before 10:13 a.m. Teachers and staff hid in rooms, bathrooms and closets in the Covenant School and its church, whispering prayers and calls for help on the line, children’s voices and gunshots blaring in the background.
Dispatchers assured callers that police were already on their way and calmly pressed for details of their whereabouts and the shooter. When officers arrived minutes later, they formed small teams and swept through elementary school classrooms, which were filled with empty desks, in search of the shooter and moved toward the sound of gunfire from the second floor.
At 10:27 a.m., officers armed with handguns and rifles found the gunman at a window in an open lobby, opened fire, and killed the attacker.
The quick response to Monday’s Nashville school shooting, which killed three adults and three 9-year-old children, has highlighted how law enforcement tactics and training have evolved to cope with the reality of repeated mass shootings in American schools to meet. It also illustrated a renewed focus on confronting the attacker as quickly as possible, a longstanding priority underscored by the botched response to the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting last May.
“We always hoped it would never happen in Nashville, but we trained that it could always happen,” Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Chief John Drake said in an interview on Friday. “We know we have to keep moving towards the threat and we knew we had to go in and we couldn’t wait.”
The actions of law enforcement in Nashville, captured in an edited six-minute compilation of body camera footage, stood in stark contrast to the police response and situation in Uvalde, a killing spree that ended more than an hour after it began when officers delayed a confrontation with one barricaded gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers.
The Uvalde shooting, one of the deadliest mass shootings at an elementary or secondary school in the United States, had charged senior law enforcement officials in Nashville and other departments ahead of the Covenant School attack as a reminder of what could go wrong.
“A recurring theme that’s almost set in stone is that we need to go in – it’s our job, it’s our duty to go in and make sure we’re doing our part to meet the threat,” said Sgt. Justin Coker of the Nashville Police, who helped create some of the department’s training logs years ago.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said in an interview that while it was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that first changed the way police trained to stop a Immediately confronting shooters, the reaction in Uvalde is now “on is the mind of every police officer.”
“I saw officers who were trained, officers who moved quickly and got to the heart of the problem pretty quickly,” Mr Wexler said of the Covenant School shooting. “The message from Uvalde is as fast as you can, as fast as you can, and I saw that.”
However, he acknowledged that Nashville has some of the larger and better-staffed emergency response organizations in the country and the resources to repeatedly train for the possibility of a mass shooting.
“The cautionary tale is that Nashville was prepared for what they experienced — not every agency, particularly in rural parts of the country, will have the resources,” Mr Wexler said.
Chief Chris M. Rozman was acting deputy chief of police at Michigan State University when a gunman killed three people on campus in February before dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after hundreds of officers dispersed across the sprawling campus.
He said the Uvalde shooting “only reinforced that our officers are trained to react as quickly as possible”.
The common denominator of a well-executed response “is usually that the agency involved is genuinely committed to training, and not just training as an agency, but training with their local and regional partners,” Chief Rozman said, noting that he has responded to inquiries from other police departments at the university about how his department dealt with the attack.
Coordination between law enforcement and emergency management in Nashville has also intensified in recent years, in part due to a series of natural disasters and attacks, including by a gunman at a Waffle House in 2018 and by a bomber that hit an explosives-packed RV at Christmas detonated day in 2020.
And in the face of the ever-present threat of mass shootings, the city has repeatedly held training sessions for officers and senior executives that have included briefings from other officers and emergency departments who have witnessed the horror of a school shooting.
Chief William Swann of the Nashville Fire Department estimated that of about 17 joint active-duty training sessions held in 2022, 11 of them were held in a middle school building, where his department shared with police officers and other officials how to respond to emergencies . The latest joint exercise took place a week before the Covenant School shooting, he said.
With a fire station near the school, medics and rescue workers stood directly behind police officers as part of a rescue task force during Monday’s shooting, searching hallways and classrooms for victims and taking them to ambulances and hospitals for treatment.
“If you don’t have proper training, your emotions will play into it, and if you let your emotions play into it, you’re going to get into trouble,” Chief Swann said. That can be a particular problem in a school shooting, he added. The principal held back tears as he described the innocence of the classroom and “the good medicine” of a child’s hugs and kisses.
The emergency measures extended to the bureaucratic response, with staff in the mayor’s office and other agencies helping to coordinate communications, the unusually quick release of footage from the school, and reunion efforts as panicked parents rushed to a nearby church, to find their children after the shooting.
“My first wish was, ‘Oh my God, I hope none of this is true, I hope this all turns out to be inaccurate,'” said Kristin Wilson, director of operations and performance for Mayor John Cooper’s office. “And then the second was, ‘Let’s go — we know what to do here.'”
Like other Nashville officials, she said she will continue to review the response but has not yet seen the need for any significant change to existing training.
Senior officials have also invested in mental health support and resources for their officers and staff as they deal with what they saw and heard on Monday and the realization that six people did not survive, although they did have done everything according to their training.
“Everything worked as it should, except we were able to do things that are out of our control,” said Chief Swann of the fire department.
That mental toll was heavy on the group of dispatchers who took the series of about two dozen 911 calls and relayed details to law enforcement. Guided by a series of questions, they made a note of each caller’s whereabouts and instructed them to do what felt safest and wait for the police to arrive. When called, the dispatcher can be heard telling a teacher to be ready to flee or to fight if she decides to stay.
“You paint the picture, right, that’s our job,” said Steve Martini, Nashville’s chief of emergency communications. “Our goal is to fight for calm, fight for order, fight for clarity and bring the situation back to some level of calm as best we can.”
For some of the dispatchers, this Monday was the first day of work after a round of training that ended in part on the previous Friday with a discussion of how to handle 911 calls from a shooting scene.
Aubrey Warnick, 45, who has been a dispatcher since August, stayed on the phone with a pastor for 35 minutes as he sought shelter, praying for the children trapped at the school and asking for help. At that moment, she said, “time stood still.”
“You’re always preparing for the worst and expecting and hoping that doesn’t happen,” she said.
Courtney Leaman, 25, who has been a dispatcher for the past six months, advised the teachers while whispering their locations and the threat of a gunman.
Afterward, she was calling her mother — a dispatcher who responded to a shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in 2006 — when she began to cry.
“I need to exude confidence,” she said of her work, but “part of you wants to jump through the phone and comfort and comfort yourself.”