It was only a test.
The Central Lakes College campus in Brainerd caused quite a scare Wednesday after a training message stating there was a gunman at the school was inadvertently sent to students and faculty.
The message, indicating there was a gunman on the campus and that the school was locked down, was sent out about 4 p.m. to everyone in CLC's phone and e-mail directory.
Kari Christiansen, vice president for administrative services at CLC, said information technology staffers at the school were testing recently installed security software when they accidentally sent out the live message.
Terry Fairbanks, the CLC law enforcement coordinator and instructor, first received notice on his cell phone that an "active shooter" was on the CLC campus, lives were in imminent danger and police and security officers were tracking the suspect.
Terry Fairbanks, a Central Lakes College law enforcement instructor and licensed peace officer, responded with a police rifle Wednesday to an alarm of a gunman on the Brainerd campus. The alarm proved to be false. A training message stating that there was a gunman at the school was mistakenly sent out to students and faculty. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"I'm listening to this and I'm saying, 'this can't be real,'" Fairbanks said. But the language was specific and nothing on the message referred to a drill.
"I couldn't believe it," Fairbanks said. "You always think it's never going to happen here. Then the training kicked in."
AUDIO: » Listen to the phone message that caused alarm.
Monday's Virginia Tech shooting was discussed in CLC's law enforcement classes. And this week, Fairbanks and other licensed police officers, who are college instructors, discussed how they would respond to a threat here.
Fairbanks never expected to put the plan into action so soon. After hearing the message, Fairbanks went to a secured place, where he retrieved an AR 15 rifle used in law enforcement course instruction.
After the Virginia Tech shooting, the possibility of a copycat incident here wasn't beyond belief. Within minutes of realizing the error, a second message was sent out by phone, e-mail and over the school's public address system indicating that the first message was only a test.
"We're very sorry about the error," Christiansen said. "The error was determined right away and was corrected."
But minutes ticked away while people on and off campus thought the danger was real.
Fairbanks, armed with rifle, moved toward the center of campus, expecting to hear shots and telling a few students and others he saw on the way to seek safety in rooms with the lights off. Now he's sure he probably scared a week off their lives. He listened for gunfire and screaming and had 911 punched into his cell phone. Five to seven minutes passed from the original call of a campus shooter to the confirmation that the incident was a computer glitch.
"For training, it doesn't get any more realistic than that," Fairbanks said. "In my perspective, the positives outweigh the negatives."
There were positives in the reaction time and cooperation between faculty, students and law enforcement, Fairbanks said.
Chris Hudson, director of safety and security at Central Lakes College, talked Wednesday about the incident at the college. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"I could have stopped the threat," he said, noting his colleagues would have done the same thing. "It was good in that respect. I wish I had known it was a drill and not the real thing. It's not the way I wanted to end the afternoon."
Fairbanks was left wondering if things could have been different at Virginia Tech had an honest, law-abiding person been armed there.
The second e-mail sent to CLC students and faculty said the message was only a test and was not to have been announced.
"Operator Error Bigtime!" is how the e-mail ended.
As soon as the first message was sent out, the phone lines at the CLC information desk began ringing nonstop with questions about the gunman. A receptionist repeatedly informed callers that there was no problem and the messages were tests.
Brainerd police officers also responded to the campus, but left after it was learned that the message was intended to be a training exercise, Sgt. Tim Melin said in a news release.
Crow Wing County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Debi Backdahl said the sheriff's department 911 dispatch and the general phone line were inundated with calls about the incident.
"They definitely were concerned once word got out," Backdahl said.
Despite the alarm, the campus appeared calm just minutes after the first message was sent out.
Britta Thiesse, a student at CLC, said she didn't know it was a test at first, but quickly figured it out.
But with Monday's tragedy at Virginia Tech, in which a gunman killed 32 people before shooting himself, Thiesse said that, at first, she was concerned.
"It's the idea that once it happens, it's easier for someone to do it again," Thiesse said.
One student, who did not want to be identified, said his mother called him at CLC from Wadena to make sure he was OK. The Alexandria Police Department called the campus to see what was going on after getting a concerned call from a mother with a child at CLC.
Christiansen said the training message involved new software installed at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities before the Virginia Tech tragedy.
Chris Hudson, director of safety and security at CLC, likened the security program to the AMBER Alert instant messaging system used to find abducted children.
"The whole point is to do what it did," Hudson said. "It's sort of a good thing to know it works, but it would be nice to be able to incorporate training ahead of time."
Hudson said the error rattled some people, including a student who was almost in tears in the parking lot.
"She said, 'It isn't funny to have a test like this today,'" Hudson said.
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