State Farm Insurance in DuPont setting of mock workplace violence

State Farm Insurance’s Operations Center in DuPont was the site of a major workplace violence exercise held in conjunction with 23 public agencies. Nearly all 1,000 State Farm employees were involved, with most being evacuated from the building during the mock – but realistic – exercise.

Local businesses and residents were notified of the Friday exercise, which began at about 9 a.m. and continued until noon.

The scenario for the exercise involved a handgun-toting intruder – played to perfection by Ara Steben, a member of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department – who entered State Farm’s Operations Center building by “tailgating” an employee.

Once inside the 364,000-square-foot building, the intruder made his way to his wife’s desk, shooting several people along the way. The role of the intruder’s wife – and later hostage – was played by State Farm employee Rya Chasmar.

Although no makeup or other special effects were used to simulate injuries, steps were taken to make the exercise as realistic as possible. Steben, as the armed intruder, screamed and yelled accusations that his wife was cheating on him as he roamed about the building, gunning down several people along the way. The air was heavy with smoke from the discharge of blanks from his weapon. Even though they knew it was only a simulation, several people were visibly startled by the gun’s loud report. Various gunshot victims moaned and pleaded for help as part of the exercise.

Meanwhile, police and fire departments and other agencies responded as if it were a real emergency. An active shooter team from the DuPont Police Department made its way into the building, narrowing down the suspect’s location. They were followed by various Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, which secured the perimeter and began negotiations with the intruder for the release of his hostage. The intruder also threatened to disperse a biological agent.

Throughout the drill, most employees were evacuated from the building, exiting with their hands on their heads per police instructions. The rest were locked down in the building. Several people who were injured during the faux rampage made their way out of the building, where they were treated by medical personnel, with some being loaded into ambulances for transportation to the hospital.

The simulated crisis ended when police neutralized the intruder, according to State Farm public affairs head Vicki Harper, discovering that he in fact did not possess a biological agent. A dozen people were shot during the mock massacre, with seven State Farm employees playing shooting victims. The other five were played by Madigan Army Medical Center personnel and members of the Pierce County Search and Rescue Team.

The drill, a unique public/private partnership, was organized as a mutually beneficial training exercise for State Farm employees and the public safety departments involved. “The main thing we’re trying to do today is evacuate the building,” Harper said, describing the day’s exercise as a great opportunity to train employees and partner with the 23 public agencies involved. “Everybody gets training,” she said.

Detective Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, agreed, calling the exercise a learning experience. “They’ve really invested a lot of time in this,” he said of State Farm, noting the key to success in these types of situations is the relationship between private businesses and law enforcement. “It’s fantastic.”

Friday’s exercise evolved out of workplace violence training at State Farm that was provided by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department SWAT Team, said Jody Woodcock, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman. “This is the largest such evacuation in the region,” she said, “and is unique for the number of agencies involved.”

Hosting such a drill was first discussed two years ago, said Shelbie Brown, loss prevention manager with State Farm, and became a reality six months ago when a date was set.

Coordinating such a massive exercise involving so many people and so many agencies was not easy, Brown said. “It’s like trying to make a snowball in the desert,” she quipped.

The highly visible drill – traffic on Interstate 5 near DuPont could see parts of the exercise – went smoothly and officials seemed pleased with the results.

Analysis of what went right and what went wrong will be examined, Woodcock said, to improve how private businesses and public safety agencies respond to workplace violence.

The exercise was paid for by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The $13,500 provided by the federal government paid for the public agencies involved, Woodcock explained, while State Farm Insurance paid their own costs.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department SWAT Team; Tacoma Police Department SWAT Team; Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department SWAT Team; Pierce County Department of Emergency Management; Pierce County Sheriff’s Office; DuPont Police Department; DuPont Fire Department; Steilacoom Police and Fire Departments; Lakewood Police Department; Lakewood Fire Department; University Place Fire Department; Fort Lewis Fire Department; Madigan Army Medical Center; Pierce County Fire Communication Center; Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA); Washington State Patrol; Department of Transportation; American Red Cross; Pierce County Communications Center (TAC1); Pierce Transit; Washington State Weapons of Mass Destruction Response Team (National Guard); Fort Lewis Provost Marshall; and Pierce County Search and Rescue