RIVERSIDE, Calif. — For most athletes, it isn't often they jump from practice right into game mode, but on a fateful December 2nd day, a former California Baptist University athlete had to do just that.
Ryan Starling, who played baseball at CBU in 2001 and 2002, was practicing active-shooter drills with his SWAT team on what seemed like a normal Wednesday morning. It's all part of the curriculum associated with the SWAT training, California mandates so many hours of training in different situations: breaching, explosives, active shooters, etc.
The team had just finished their second scenario of an active shooter and was in the middle of debriefing when they got the call that a real one had broken out just 10 minutes away at the Inland Regional Center. He didn't even have to take the time to put on his uniform, it was already on.
"I believe God was watching over us," said Starling. "I think it takes me about 5-10 minutes for me to put on my uniform as fast as I can, but I already had it on. If I had to do that, or if I was at home, it would have taken a lot longer to get there."
As a medic attached to a SWAT team, Starling's role became the first to enter the building and go through the protocol set to do the "greatest good for the greatest amount of people." He was the only medic inside since firemen don't have the training or gear to go through the situation when shooters are still believed to be inside.
Once inside, Starling "took a deep breath and got to work" with the triage, assigning degrees of urgency to the wounded, going through as rapidly as possible to get to those who needed help. Starling and a team of officers outside with pickup trucks and unmarked cars, loaded up 21 patients, including 14 critically injured, and sent them to the hospital.
"You kind of get tunnel vision, but in a focused way," said Starling. "You know you have a job to do. That's all you can think about. It's the same when you're up to bat. You don't hear the crowd, those senses get dulled. You revert to your training and almost become a robot."
In medical terms, a patient has a golden hour, which is the highest likelihood that prompt medical treatment will prevent death, starting from when the injury occurs. With Starling's team's efforts, all 14 critically injured people were able to be in the hands of a surgeon under that hour.
"It was a total team effort," said Starling. "There were so many people working together. It was phenomenal."
Growing up playing sports his whole life, Starling was used to being on a team and dealing with stressful situations.
"I'm the guy that wants to bat with two outs and a runner on second -- put me in," said Starling. "I like stressful situations. You have the confidence in yourself and a team you trust.
"That's part of the reason I wanted to be a fireman," added Starling. "It's the same as being on a team. You train with these guys, they become your family."
Starling's dream of becoming a firefighter started in high school, but former CBU Coach Paul Kumamoto approached him to play ball as a Lancer and Starling jumped at the opportunity.
"It was a no-brainer," said Starling. "I knew CBU was a great Christian college and I wanted to go there."
While at CBU, the catcher and outfielder kept busy and took fire classes during the summer and in between training seasons. Those eventually led to EMT courses and then working late nights at the emergency room.
The first time Starling applied for the fire academy, he didn't get in. He kept trying, however, and got in January of 2003, which wasn't ideal timing.
"It was right before baseball season was starting," said Starling. "Do I take this opportunity I might not get again or keep playing baseball? It was one of the hardest decisions of my life."
He chose to pursue his dream and later got a job as a firefighter, which led to paramedic school, which ultimately led to that Wednesday morning where he truly lived out his purpose.
"God had a plan," said Starling, a father of triplets. "I knew that all along. It's incredible, He knew this was going to happen. My wife was nervous about me going into SWAT training, but I never hesitated. I was given the gift of a great paramedic. I do well in stressful situations, I adapt and overcome."
His success that afternoon garnered attention from the FBI and even got praise that it was one of the best and most organized active-shooter situations the FBI had seen, which is why they believed so many survived.
Even though his gift helped save the lives of many, Starling isn't one to say it was all him.
"I was just doing my job," said Starling. "Media were wondering why it took them a few days to learn about what I did, but I'm not the kind of guy to be like 'Look at me and what I did.' We should be focusing on those 14 people who lost their lives that day and their families, especially at Christmas time. They're the true heroes."
Just a year and a half ago, Starling's SWAT sergeant had trained some of those who were at the Inland Regional Center on December 2nd on what to do during an active-shooter situation: run, hide or fight. They followed their training and barricaded themselves in, pulled the fire alarms or ran out of the building.
"They were able to help each other," said Starling. "That's incredible, in such a horrible situation, God was there to protect them."