Home Fire & Emergency Service Emergency Management Sandy Hook, Aurora Leaders Share Commonalities of Responding to Mass Casualty Events

Sandy Hook, Aurora Leaders Share Commonalities of Responding to Mass Casualty Events

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By Leischen Stelter

No community, large or small, is immune to mass casualty events. During an educational session at the 120th annual International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Orlando, Florida law enforcement leaders who have experienced mass casualty events shared their experiences in an effort to help other communities prepare.

“Our events all looked different, but there are common themes and things you should know about a tragedy, should one hit your community,” said Kehoe.

The first thing law enforcement leaders need to understand is that the aftermath of this event will last months and years after the event. “The event at Sandy Hook was shocking in itself, but the aftermath was shocking as well,” said Kehoe.

At the podium, Captain Paul O’Keefe of Aurora, Colo., is joined by Chief Michael Kehoe of Newtown, Conn., and Chief Ronnie Bastin of Lexington, Ky. during a session at IACP.

Chief Bastin agreed, saying that even eight years after the tragic plane crash there are trigger points for his officers. “You must remember that your folks will carry a lot of baggage from this incident,” he said. It’s important for law enforcement leaders to remain vigilant regarding the wellness of their officers and constantly look for signs of PTSD even years after the event. “You need to have a baseline for your people so you notice when something is off and you can intervene before they unravel,” he said.

The Value of Training
Preparing for an incident can go a long way during an actual response. “The outcome is never going to be good, but your chance of having a better outcome will be improved if you’ve trained,” said O’Keefe. Not only does training help with the response itself, but it also helps improve the resiliency of responders.

While an agency can never train for every possible event, there are many similarities from these incidents. Here are some training suggestions from the panelists:

  • When training, use existing communication equipment to help identify inadequacies of equipment and training gaps.
  • Train with other agencies including fire and EMS.
  • Attend regional meetings and form local relationships now.
  • Have mutual aid agreements in place with neighboring departments to provide assistance. Other crime won’t stop and personnel will be exhausted.
  • Have realistic conversations about what an incident will look like—don’t sugarcoat anything. The scene will be bloody and smelly and some responders will not be able to handle it.

Also, law enforcement leaders need to realize they have their own limitations. “No matter how much you’ve trained or prepared, expect to be overwhelmed,” said Bastin. “Pick folks you can rely on and delegate duties. You will not be able to make decisions on everything.”

How to Handle the Media
One topic discussed thoroughly was the challenge posed by the media. “The media will overwhelm you,” said Kehoe. He was bombarded with media requests and recommends that agencies assign a public information officer (PIO) to handle these requests.

The media will come from all over the world, causing traffic jams and bombarding the community. Presenters recommended that all law enforcement leaders develop a plan in advance for handling the media and releasing information.

“One lesson I learned is that you can’t forget about your local media,” said Kehoe. “Give them extra information, if possible, and take care of them. They will be there long after the incident is over.”

Also, consider assigning a PIO to the victims’ families to help them navigate the media. “Never underestimate the media’s desire to get to your officers or the victims,” said O’Keefe.

Other Lessons Learned
Here are some additional lessons shared during this session to help guide officials as they prepare to respond to a mass casualty:

  • Identify multiple locations that can hold large groups of people. Contact individuals in charge of those facilities and develop plans.
  • Have a plan for providing support for responders. Mental health should be a priority for officers and employees.
  • Set up a volunteer system. Volunteers are critical to completing tasks that agencies and governments cannot do, but a system needs to be in place to organize volunteers.
  • Establish a secure storage location for evidence. The amount of evidence collected at a mass casualty scene is often immense. Have a donation and gift management plan. Identify a warehouse or other large space to put all the mail and donations.
  • Have contingency plans in place for counter-protests that are likely to happen.

A mass casualty event will be overwhelming for all those involved. It’s critical to remain focused on the needs of the victims and ensure that efforts and resources always have them in mind. Equally important is to plan and train so that first responders are as prepared as possible for the many challenges of a mass casualty event.

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