Officials: Operation Hilltopper a success

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Schools: Emergency exercise took place Monday at LAHS

By Tris DeRoma

With her neatly-combed hair and nice smile, she certainly didn’t seem like a stone-cold killer.


But that was the role high school student Katelyn Leslie was destined to play Monday morning during a town-wide emergency drill called “Operation Hilltopper.”  

With the high school as a backdrop, Leslie and other students got to play villain and victim during an event that no one ever wants to see happen for real — a school shooting.

“I guess I was picked because I was the least likely person they’d suspect,” she said. “I just waited for them (the police) in a conference room to find me, and then I’d have a shootout with them,” she said matter-of-factly.

After an intense morning of watching Operation Hilltopper unfold, Phil Taylor, the emergency management coordinator for the Los Alamos County Office of Emergency Management, said the drill was worth the time and effort.

Though the event only lasted four hours, Taylor had been planning “Operation Hilltopper” for about two years, along with the heads of all of Los Alamos’ Emergency Services, as well as the Los Alamos school system. Transportation of the dead and injured, how the “suspect” would be extricated and where “triage” centers would be set up were just some of the minute details everyone involved had to plan in advance.

While a school shooting sounds a bit morbid and perhaps tasteless to some, the idea involved staging an event that would push every agency involved to its absolute limits.

“Evaluators” from various state agencies were on hand to judge every stage of the event, from the initial takedown of the shooter to how to handle the parents and onlookers that may show up if the scene were real.

“It went faster than I expected,” Taylor said of his hectic morning. “This was the first full-scale exercise since I’ve been here on the county side.”

Though they do emergency drills with the Los Alamos National Laboratory all the time, Taylor said this was the first one they’ve done without the lab’s resources or participation.

“We did our own thing here, so for the first one, things went better than I expected, we might have even over-planned it,” Taylor said. He added that now that they’ve done it, the next one probably won’t take as long to plan.

“I can probably plan the next one out in about six months,” he said.

After the drill, all of the students and emergency officials that participated in the event met up at the Duane Smith Auditorium to evaluate how things went and to have lunch.

Many of the observances had to do with how well the students handled themselves during the first moments of the crisis.

Martin Vigil, one of the event’s observers and Taylor’s counterpart in Santa Fe County was impressed with how things went.

“I just want to applaud the exercise,” Vigil said. “It takes a lot to organize and plan these and you guys did a very good job.”

However, Vigil had some advice for the students and other “casualties” at the event, who count more than they might think.

“You are the ones that are going to make a difference in your neighbor’s outcome,” he said. “I really encourage you to find opportunities on how to open an airway, stop a hemorrhage how to drag somebody into a classroom ... it’s you guys who are really going to make a difference during a real life scenario.”

When asked if she felt a little safer at school knowing that Los Alamos has some sort of a plan, Leslie answered “probably yes.”

“Knowing that we have a plan is better than just being ignorant that one exists. But at the same time if a school shooting does happen, we probably wouldn’t be able to do much in the first few minutes,” Leslie said.