On Wednesday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked Cameron Kasky, the 17-year-old Parkland shooting survivor who has helped lead the students’ fight for gun control, how he felt about the popular right-wing conspiracy theory that he and his classmates are paid actors. “If you had seen me in my school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, you would know that no one would pay me to act for anything,” Kasky told Blitzer.
Kasky is one of several Parkland, Florida, students who have been absurdly labeled “crisis actors” by right-wingers since watching their friends get murdered by a classmate with an AR-15 last week. A conspiracy theory promoted by Facebook and YouTube suggested that David Hogg, the high school student and shooting survivor who has been outspoken about the need for stricter gun control, was a “crisis actor” shipped in from California. That lie was repeated by, among tens of thousands of others, an aide to a Republican state representative in Florida and a Pennsylvania state representative, also a Republican, who doubted in a Facebook post that the Parkland students were really students at all.
“Crisis actors” do, in fact, exist. But they are hardly deep-state plants hired to emote on national television. They are volunteers and paid actors who help play both attack victims and criminals in emergency drills for police and other first responders. “Drills are skills,” says Jette Jansen, a Bay Area resident who plays stricken victims of shootings and other disasters. “That’s my motto.”
Georgia’s Guardian Centers, which opened in 2012, is one of a host of sites that cater to the business of “scenario training.” Ninety minutes south of Atlanta is a defunct Northrop Grumman missile plant that has been converted into a stage-set town. Here in the heart of peanut farming country, first responders conduct simulated disaster drills with metropolitan props that include more than five dozen buildings, an old Washington Metro train, and a mile-long stretch of four-lane highway. When I visited in 2014, founder Geoff Burkart explained that what set this facility apart, in his view, was not just the concrete jungle gym. “The responders need to be exposed to the panic, the worry, the shock of the general public,” he said. “How do you teach a 19-year-old National Guardsman how to deal with a mom with a minivan full of kids, trying to convince her not to leave a quarantine area?”
Furnished with storylines and caked in the bloody plaster known as moulage, role-playing actors help prepare police, fire, and emergency medical services for attacks. The practice is now de rigueur at military and police training exercises. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama, for example, has employed full-time role player/actors (or RPAs) since 2006. “A city mayor, pregnant woman, injured traveller, inebriated patient, hostile father, gunshot victim, and a variety of other RPAs pack the inside of a hospital or scream for help following a subway railcar crash,” the CDP explains in a press release. “RPAs add to the chaos as emergency responders treat the injured, decontaminate survivors, and mitigate a disaster scene.”
Emergency drills like these—particularly those that occur on city streets—have helped feed outrageous fringe doubts about the reality of gun massacres. Some writers for InfoWars—the website run by Alex Jones, who argues that the Sandy Hook shooting was faked—watch disaster drills closely and speculate about how they might be used to prepare for an anti-Trump coup or inoculate the citizenry against a heavy military presence. After the Boston Marathon bombing, a writer for the site noted that the bombing bore “eerie similarities” to an earlier drill. Other well-known conspiracy theorists have observed that training exercises always seem to directly precede shootings.
Officials say that such field events are an important part of training America’s first responders for mass casualty events. “Some of these scenarios, they shock you when you walk in there, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” explains Ray Kelly, a sergeant at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office who does public affairs for the office’s Urban Shield program, which runs drills all around the country—including the Boston exercise that occurred shortly before the bombing. “We want you to feel the real thing so that if you have to experience the real thing, those images don’t distract you from the real-world mission.”
Kelly believes that the relationship with volunteers allows the citizenry to play a direct role in training the police. “They take great pride in the makeup and artistry,” he says of his volunteers, “and they can go back and critique, and say, ‘This officer did a really good job, this other officer didn’t ask me the right questions.’ ”
Some role players are professional actors. At Fort Irwin, a massive fake village in the California desert trains soldiers for civilian combat scenarios in Afghanistan. The site employs more than 350 role players, including a highly paid group of actual amputees. Fort Irwin’s actors form angry crowds, or hawk plastic bread and fake meat.
Mostly, though, they’re curious people with time on their hands. “It’s like a come-as-your-favorite-injury party,” says Jim Morrissey, the terrorism and disaster preparedness director for the Alameda County EMS. “If you want to lay there and just be dead, raise your hand. If you want to be screaming because you have blood coming out of an artery, they say, ‘Ooh, I want to do that.’ We let them gravitate towards their personality.”
Crisis acting can be a fun time for pretend victims. “Hysterical, crying, afraid, angry, annoying, quiet and in shock, unconscious, etc.,” reads one of Taylor Wilmering’s advertisements for a drill in St. Louis. “There will be a wide range of injuries and behaviors!” Wilmering, a government contractor, says she often hires high school drama students.
Others see it as a responsibility. Christine Schwartz, a caregiver in Berkeley who has been volunteering in crisis drills for nearly 20 years and now recruits for them, said she relished the opportunity both to prepare herself and to help train emergency responders. The drills can be difficult, she says. “I like Halloween, but when I’m participating, I don’t really enjoy the gunshots. My body reacts to it. But I know that when we’re done, that we actually went through a simulated horrible experience, and I know whether I died or I lived.” Jansen volunteers in part in memory of her friends who died during a 2003 attack on the U.N. Mission in Baghdad. At first, she says, “I used to just scream and yell like everybody else. Now I speak my native language in all the drills. I speak Danish to stress them out as much as possible.”
It’s particularly rich that conspiracy theorists point suspiciously to the degree to which real-world events resemble drills. The causality runs the other way: Disaster training managers study and reinvent real-world attacks. Last year, for example, Urban Shield re-created the Pulse nightclub shooting. This year, they will stage—with a team of hundreds of actors—a massacre like the one Stephen Paddock committed in Las Vegas.