Mass shooting incidents

CarolinaFireJournal - By David Greene
By David Greene
08/04/2013 -

Mass shooting incidents are thankfully foreign territory to many of us. However, the fire service must be constantly prepared for these types of incidents. Sadly, shootings are not that uncommon in the jurisdiction for which this author works. The largest number of victims at a single incident in our jurisdiction occurred in 2009 and involved nine victims. Because these incidents are low in frequency, planning, training and learning from others’ mistakes are extremely important. This quarter we will examine this incident as well as the Tucson shooting involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and the shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008.


Planning for an incident of this type is essential. While it is difficult to anticipate conditions, number of victims, and locations, it is possible to develop a plan which includes the responsibilities of each agency and roles that each must fill for successful operations. Obviously, one of the first concerns in a mass shooting is scene safety. Law enforcement must secure the scene prior to fire-rescue being able to operate. In many cases, scene security must be determined and then re-verified.

At the 2009 incident mentioned above, one of the first arriving law enforcement officials called on their radio and stated that everyone could slow down and the scene was secure. This was followed by a fire-rescue supervisor transmitting to dispatch, “I don’t know how many cops you have coming to this scene but it’s not enough.” Unfortunately, the fire-rescue supervisor was correct. Gunfire again erupted at the scene just minutes after loading the first patient. Thankfully, no additional people or responders were hit.

In any shooting incident, insure that the shooter is neutralized or has departed the scene. Insuring there is only one shooter is also essential as multiple shooters will seriously complicate matters. Again, re-verify that the scene is safe and, like a wildland fire, try to leave yourself an escape route in case the scene deteriorates.

An isolation perimeter is critical in scene security. A wide isolation perimeter can also prevent personal vehicles of family members from blocking egress paths for transporting ambulances or escape routes. The number of resources needed will be based upon the number of patients and their conditions. It is essential to put the agencies, locations, number of resources and contact numbers into pre-incident planning efforts. Having access to these resources will greatly reduce triage, treatment and transport times. In the Illinois incident, 18 patients were triaged and transported in 90 minutes. In Tucson, it took only 39 minutes to triage and transport 13 patients. Air evacuation of patients may be advantageous in suburban and rural areas; however, in many cases, ground transportation may be quicker. In Tucson, the first two patients were transported by ground even though three medical helicopters responded and landed at the scene. However, both ground units arrived at the trauma center before the helicopters.

Information will be a valuable commodity at incidents such as this. If a mass shooting involves a public figure or occurs at a public place, the media is very likely to descend quickly on the scene. Family members will also be extremely anxious to find out about the condition of their loved ones, such was the case in the Illinois incident.

In Tucson, the dispatcher announced over the radio that the shooting incident involved Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. This triggered a massive media response. The Incident Commander mandated no use of names in radio traffic. Using triage tag numbers or patient numbers will be beneficial since the media will likely be monitoring radio traffic.

The first press conference in Illinois was only roughly two hours after the initial 9-1-1 call. Remember, “No Comment” is no longer an option. The media will be reporting something, it’s what they do. The question is, do you want the media reporting inaccurate information because they are not getting any from officials or do you want them reporting accurate information based on official information?

Of course in these types of incidents, public information releases should be highly coordinated with law enforcement officials. The Sheriff in Tucson ordered a press conference one mile from the scene of the shooting. This helped to remove the bulk of the media presence at the scene, although they returned to the scene at the conclusion of the press conference.

When dealing with these types of incidents at schools, the use of websites and social media can be helpful in distributing information and providing contact numbers for family members inquiring about their children. Empathy should be part of any official messages and should be delivered in the first 20 seconds of the message. Internal information should also be controlled.

If the incident is of high visibility and has a large media presence, the names of responders and contact information will be very valuable to the media. In the Tucson incident, Dr. Phil’s producer called the firefighter/paramedic in charge of triage at the scene at his residence in hopes of obtaining an interview. Incidents such as these would be stressful enough without personnel being bothered at their homes. Everyone, including the media, will continue to desire information after operations are complete.

In the Illinois incident, a hotline staffed by Student Affairs handled more than 10,000 parents and family calls in the first 48 hours. Anticipating this can help to insure that accurate information is being disseminated.

These scenes are also similar to Weapons of Mass Destruction incidents. They are crime scenes. In the Illinois incident, great care was taken to keep uninjured students that were present in the classroom in an isolated group outside until they could be interviewed by law enforcement. In the Tucson incident, the FBI held the fire department units on the scene for almost 12 and a half hours. Although the fire chief originally commented that he was upset over the long delay and the holding of his units, he did not complain. Chief Piechura thought it was important to keep the scene secure and prevent spoliation of evidence. He did not want to create a reasonable doubt that could later be used in court.

It is important to preserve as much evidence as possible while operating at these types of incidents. Of course, incident documentation should be painstakingly thorough. The hospital, fire department, Public Affairs Office, and the coroner involved in the Illinois incident were all recognized for excellence in documenting their actions and decisions throughout and after the incident.

Training that utilizes the devised plan is essential for proper preparation. In the Illinois incident, the hospital was locked down by law enforcement until it was ascertained that the shooting was not gang related. Practicing this before the incident and involving local hospital personnel in planning is essential. Although strategies are bound to be dynamic, tactics and tasks will be similar despite the incident specifics. Training on mass casualty care, patient triage procedures, and tactical combat casualty care can greatly aid in improving tactical level operations. Table top exercises can also aid those charged with command and control with decision making.

This type of training will give frames of reference to those who will act in the Incident Command, triage, treatment, and/or transportation roles. This will greatly enhance decision making abilities should an incident of this type occur in your jurisdiction. We must also continue to study the reports and after action reviews from these types of incidents across the country. Hopefully, we will not have had enough experience at these types of incidents to learn from our own mistakes. Therefore, we must make an effort to learn from the mistakes of others in order to improve similar operations in the future.

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instaructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at a[email protected].References: USFA, Technical Report # 167 – February 2008Chief Jeff Piechura & Division Chief Cheryl Horvath, Northwestern Fire District (Metropolitan Tucson) at Fire-Rescue International 2011
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