NASHVILLE — The first 911 calls started coming in just before 10:13 a.m. Teachers and staff members, hiding in rooms, bathrooms and closets across the Covenant School and its church, whispered prayers and pleas for help on the line, children’s voices and gunshots audible in the background.
Dispatchers assured the callers that the police were already on their way, calmly pressing for details about their location and the shooter. When officers did arrive, minutes later, they formed small teams and swept through elementary school classrooms filled with empty desks in search of the shooter, moving toward the sound of gunfire from the second floor.
By 10:27 a.m., officers armed with handguns and rifles had found the shooter by a window in an open lobby, opened fire and killed the attacker.
The swift response to the shooting at the Nashville school on Monday, in which three adults and three 9-year-old children were killed, highlighted how law enforcement tactics and training have evolved to confront the reality of repeated mass shootings at American schools. It also illustrated a renewed focus on confronting the assailant as soon as possible, a longstanding priority underscored by the botched response to the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last May.
“We always hoped it would never happen in Nashville, but we trained on the possibility it could always happen,” Chief John Drake of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said in an interview on Friday. “We know we have to keep moving toward the threat, and we knew that we had to go in and we could not wait.”
The actions of law enforcement in Nashville, captured in an edited six-minute compilation of body camera footage, stood in stark contrast with the police response and situation in Uvalde, a rampage that ended more than an hour after it began as officers delayed a confrontation with a barricaded gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers.
The shooting in Uvalde, one of the deadliest mass shootings at a primary or secondary school in the United States, had weighed on senior law enforcement officials in Nashville and other departments before the attack at the Covenant School as a reminder of what could go wrong.
“One recurring theme that has been laid almost in stone is that we have to go in — it’s our job, it’s our duty to go in and make sure that we’re doing our part to address the threat,” said Sgt. Justin Coker of the Nashville Police, who helped craft some of the department’s training protocols years ago.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said in an interview that while it was the 1999 rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado that first transformed how police trained to immediately confront a shooter, the response in Uvalde now “is on the mind of every police officer.”
“I saw officers who were trained, officers who moved quickly and seemed to get to the heart of the problem fairly quickly,” Mr. Wexler said of the Covenant School shooting. “The message of Uvalde is that you go as fast as you can, as quickly as you can, and that’s what I saw.”
But he acknowledged that Nashville has some of the larger and more well-staffed emergency response agencies 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 encountered — not every agency, particularly in rural parts of the country, will have the resources,” Mr. Wexler said.
Chief Chris M. Rozman was interim deputy chief of the Michigan State University Police Department when a gunman killed three people on campus in February before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after hundreds of officers fanned out across the sprawling campus.
He said the Uvalde shooting had “just reinforced it, that our officers are trained to respond as fast as possible.”
The common denominator of a well-executed response “is usually that the agency involved is really committed to training and not only training as an agency, but training with their local and county in regional partners,” Chief Rozman said, noting that he has fielded queries from other university police agencies about how his department handled the attack.
The coordination between law enforcement and emergency management in Nashville has also strengthened in recent years partly because of a series of natural disasters and attacks, including by a gunman at a Waffle House in 2018 and by a bomber who detonated an R.V. packed with explosives on Christmas Day in 2020.
And with the threat of mass shootings ever-present, the city has held repeated trainings for rank-and-file officers and senior staff members that have included briefings from other officers and emergency departments that have lived through the horror of a school shooting.
Chief William Swann of the Nashville Fire Department estimated that of about 17 joint active training sessions held in 2022, 11 of them took place in a middle school building, where his department joined police officers and other officials in running through how to respond to emergencies. The most recent joint exercise happened a week before the shooting at Covenant School, he said.
With a fire station close to the school, medics and emergency medical personnel were right behind police officers as part of a rescue task force during Monday’s shooting, he said, searching the halls and classrooms for victims and ferrying them to ambulances and hospitals for treatment.
“If you don’t have adequate training, your emotions will get involved, and if you allow your emotions to get involved, you’ll get in trouble,” Chief Swann said. That can be a particular concern in a school shooting, he added. The chief held back tears as he described the innocence of the classroom and “the good medicine” of a child’s hugs and kisses.
The emergency response extended to the bureaucratic response, where staff members in the mayor’s office and other agencies helped coordinate communications, the unusually swift release of footage from the school and reunification efforts, when panicked parents scrambled 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, the chief of operations and performance in Mayor John Cooper’s office. “And then the second one was, ‘Let’s go — we know what to do here.’”
Like other Nashville officials, she said she would continue to review the response, but had yet to see any need for a significant change to existing training.
Senior officials have also invested in mental health support and resources for their officers and staff, as they grapple with what they saw and heard on Monday and with the realization that despite doing everything according to their training, six people did not survive.
“Everything worked like it should, other than us being able to do the things that’s out of our control,” Chief Swann of the Fire Department said.
That mental toll has been stark among the group of dispatchers who fielded the series of roughly two dozen 911 calls and relayed details to law enforcement. Guided by a set series of questions, they jotted down where each caller was, instructing them to do what feels safest and wait for the police to arrive. In one call, the dispatcher can be heard telling a teacher to be prepared to flee or fight, should she choose to stay.
“You paint the picture, right, that’s our job,” said Steve Martini, the head of the Nashville department of emergency communications. “Our goal is fight for calm, fight for order, fight for clarity and restore the situation back to some level of calm as best you can.”
For a few of the dispatchers, that Monday was their first day back at work after a round of training that concluded on the previous Friday in part with a discussion of how to handle emergency calls from the scene of a shooting.
Aubrey Warnick, 45, who has been a dispatcher since August, stayed on the phone with one pastor for 35 minutes as he took shelter, praying for the children trapped in the school and pleading for help to come. In that moment, she said, “time stood still.”
“You always prepare for the worst and expect and hope for that not to happen,” she said.
Courtney Leaman, 25, who has worked as a dispatcher for six months, counseled teachers as they whispered their locations and the threat of a shooter.
Afterward, she called her mother — a dispatcher who responded to a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania — as she began to cry.
“I have to project confidence,” she said of her work, but “part of you wants to jump through the phone and comfort and console.”