Multiple news outlets on Thursday reported that an active shooter was on the loose in Fort Meade, Maryland, and had left a trail of bodies. The problem: There was no shooter, but the news outlets hadn't fabricated the story.
Troops at Fort Meade were conducting an active shooter drill, a common training event at military installations. These events usually have a series of role players: a shooter for service members and law enforcement to engage; victims and medical teams to care for them; and fake reporters to give public affairs teams a stress test with insistent questions and eventually a press conference on the day's events.
But when Fort Meade public affairs posted on social media about an active shooter, reporters called the installation to figure out what was going on.
One Facebook post on the base's verified page said:
"Exercise Exercise Exercise-- Reports of an active shooter, please shelter in place. We will provide more information as it becomes available. Exercise Exercise Exercise"
When real reporters called the base, public affairs officials thought they were role players and part of the simulation and gave them information about a fake crisis.
"Next time this happens, I guarantee you I'm asking my staff if this is a real reporter," Chad Jones, director of public affairs at Fort Meade, told Military.com in an interview following the incident.
Jones said public affairs officials are supposed to think up crisis-related posts for Facebook during the training and go through some of their playbooks for social media announcements. But he added that he didn't make it clear to staff not to actually publish posts about fictional events, which could be interpreted by some as real. The base did make a social media post Monday about the upcoming drill.
"It was my fault," Jones said. "I don't think anyone should get in trouble; they all did what they thought they were supposed to do."
News outlets later updated their stories, when public affairs officials with Fort Meade told them they had mistakenly issued fabricated information.
"No one from the exercise knew it was a reporter [on the phone]," Jones said.
He said journalism role players often use fake names but claim to be with real news outlets, such as Military.com, during training, something he said needs to be reexamined.
When public affairs officials answered their phones during the training, they began the conversations by saying "exercise, exercise, exercise," to indicate they were in the middle of a simulation, Jones explained. While that's standard procedure, public affairs officials did not verify that the people on the phone knew what "exercise" meant or whether the reporters on the calls were real.
"What should have happened is noting a real world reporter was calling about the exercise, and [we should] better identify a notional reporter," Jones said.
When asked whether any disciplinary actions should be taken, Jones said he doesn't believe anyone should be fired and that the errors are instead an opportunity to tweak public affairs training.
He added that he has "not gotten anything negative" from the Pentagon and officials seem understanding of the snafus.
"I explained to my leadership what happened," Jones said. "Obviously, nobody is happy about what happened. We're not running from it."
Fort Meade is the home of the Defense Information School, or DINFOS, which trains all public affairs officials for the Defense Department.