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Fear and confusion erupt at Walter Reed military hospital after false alerts about an active shooter

Key Points
  • Alerts about an active shooter at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center caused patients and a U.S. congressman to fear the worst on Tuesday, but the Pentagon said they were part of an "exercise."
  • Lt. Col. Audricia Harris, a Pentagon spokesperson, told CNBC on Tuesday that the reports of an active shooter were part of a drill.
  • But shortly after, NSA Bethesda, which is home to the hospital, posted a series of messages on Twitter saying that it had investigated the incident and concluded it was not a scheduled drill.
The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center stands in Bethesda, Maryland, on  May 14, 2018.
Oliver Contreras | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Alerts about an active shooter at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland caused patients and a U.S. congressman to fear the worst on Tuesday, but the Pentagon said they were part of an "exercise."

Lt. Col. Audricia Harris, a Pentagon spokesperson, told CNBC on Tuesday that the reports of an active shooter were part of a drill. The U.S. Navy later tweeted that it was an "ad hoc drill."

"CONFIRMED: No active shooter at Naval Support Activity Bethesda," the Navy said in the post. "Was ad hoc drill by tenant command."

But shortly after the Navy statement, NSA Bethesda, which is home to the hospital, posted a series of messages on Twitter saying that it had investigated the incident and concluded it was not a scheduled drill.

"Around 2 p.m. today, Tuesday, Nov. 27, a call came into security at NSA Bethesda with the report of an active shooter situation in the basement of Bldg. 19 at Walter Reed Bethesda," the military installation wrote. "After investigating the call and the origin, NSA Bethesda has determined that this was a false alarm and not part of a scheduled drill as has been reported."

Jeremy Brooks, a spokesperson for NSA Bethesda, said an investigation is continuing but "it was determined that [the false alarm] wasn't meant maliciously." 

"Somebody has the wrong information," he said. 

Walter Reed is the largest joint military medical center in the country and has a staff of approximately 7,000, according to its website.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., was one of the individuals holed up in the hospital after alerts were sent out. In a post on Twitter, he wrote that he was safe and in a conference room with around 40 other people.

Half an hour after the initial tweet, another message apparently posted by his staff said that the congressman remained in a back room at the hospital, where the mood was calm.

"Has not been given any additional details but does not believe this to be a drill," the message said.

Jaime Lennon, Ruppersberg's communications director, said "if it was a drill, it would be a surprise to congressman Ruppersberger."

Later, a tweet from Walter Reed described the situation as a "Code White."

Here's how the hospital's core competency guidelines describe a Code White drill:

What can I expect to occur during a Code White Drill?

  • Any Code White Drill will begin with a Public Address System announcement of "Exercise, Exercise, Exercise; This drill pertains only to the "whatever" Building; Code White, Active Shooter, Shelterin-Place; The "whatever" Building is secured to all other traffic at this time; Exercise, Exercise, Exercise." A postmaster will also be released.
  • Any exercise will take place only in the announced building. All other buildings will continue normal business operation. Staff, patients, and visitors will be able to enter and exit the hospital and base freely during this exercise.
  • Every effort is being made to ensure there is no interruption in patient care.
  • All staff in the whatever building is being tested that are not actively engaged in patient treatment will shelter in place. Staff will direct patients and visitors to shelter-in-place.