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From the Chair: Preparing for the Unthinkable

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-12-27
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April 20, 1999 and April 16, 2007 are dates forever burned into the consciousness of the nation.  Better known as Columbine and Virginia Tech, 45 people died from incomprehensible violence.  We can now add December 14, 2012 to that infamous list.  Twenty young children and six adults lost their lives in a horrific massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

In the latest installment of From the Chair, Paul pays tribute to the dispatchers working in the Newtown Emergency Communications Center on that fateful day.  He goes on to discuss how they were able to control the chaos of the active shooter incident, and still maintain the order and normal function of their center.  He concludes with a warning that what the Newtown dispatchers did would have been impossible without careful preparation and planning for the unthinkable.

The entire world stood in utter shock at the events that unfolded in a sleepy Connecticut community on December 14th, 2012.  Children who had barely begun their journey through life were massacred in their school.  Emergency services were dispatched to the school to deal with the tragic events that occurred that day … events that cost more than two dozen people their lives; twenty of them being young children.  Before anyone could be dispatched to the call, the horrible reality of this unfolding nightmare was being relayed by telephone to the real first responder on the scene: Dispatcher Bob Nute. 

Bob was partnered that morning with Senior Dispatcher Jenn Barocsi.  Due to the gravity and nature of the call, Communication Director Maureen Will also remained on hand to help field the deluge of incoming calls from parents, off-duty police officers and fire officials from neighboring towns. The media quickly descended upon the community, and over the next few days, we were all filled in on the gruesome details.

Within hours, the sleepy New England community of some 25,000 people was turned into a hysterical international media circus where only those three emergency telecommunicators working at the dispatch center in Town Hall South were obliged to deal with the tsunami of radio and telephone calls that ensued.  Reporters from all over the globe began calling for updates; disrupting the natural rhythm of the center, and compounding the complexity of the dispatching function. 

The center’s primary function is to alert police, fire and ambulance personnel to emergency situations.  It is not to field spurious and disruptive inquiries from a frenzied press.  Yet, here those three dispatchers were, caught in the media maelstrom that accompanies every major tragedy.  That maelstrom exists solely to satisfy the insatiable appetite of a twenty-four hour news cycle.

While it’s sheer luck that none of the dispatchers in this case were directly related to any of the shooting victims, they won’t escape the pain and suffering that is associated with such an event.  The shock and trauma they suffer will come in due course; when the television cameras and microphones have all been packed up, and the circus has finally left town.  In the interim, they are comforted by the knowledge that every single emergency telecommunicator in the country has thought of them.  Director Will said that her staff could actually feel the love and support of warm arms wrapping around them from their fellow dispatchers across the United States. 

Dispatchers don’t need to send cards or letters, bake brownies or angel food cake, to convey their feelings.  Their colleagues know what it means to be in The Chair when everything comes unglued.  And that knowledge is what sustains them in Newtown; knowing that their unsung efforts are appreciated, even if only by their dispatch brothers and sisters laboring in their own anonymity.

One of the key signs of a dispatching job well-done is the lack of criticism after the fact. The Newtown Emergency Communications Center (NECC) has received little to no media attention in itself, which suggests that everything done was according to plan.  As it happens, and not by accident, the NECC actually had an active shooter plan in place that was based upon the latest models for our profession, and coupled with training for all personnel, including those in the field.  Newtown may stay busy with everyday police, fire and ambulance activity like virtually every similar-sized communication center in the country, but it also spends considerable time preparing for the worst. 

Personnel in the Newtown center, like in many other centers, serve the dual role of call-taker and dispatcher.  They provide Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) for all their medical calls, and they maintain continuity on trouble calls by dedicating one dispatcher to that call while their partner handles everything else.  An active shooter call is not something that happens to every dispatcher, or even every dispatch center, but if it happens to you, it is essential to be properly prepared, with guidelines and procedures already in place so that you know what to do and how to do it.  And of course, there must be a hierarchy that has your back.  In these respects, Newtown, Connecticut was well prepared.  What little has been said about the dispatching of the event has been laudatory, as it should be, which helps us conclude that what they did was all according to Hoyle.

The trauma that erupted at the Sandy Hook Elementary School that Friday morning fell on the very heels of the Hurricane Sandy disaster.  Newtown had only just finished picking up the last of the storm debris the week prior.  When the storm hit the town it was left without electrical power for ten long days.  The community had already experienced plenty of disruption in the routine of daily living, and when a disruption of that routine occurs it is felt first in dispatch.  Left with barely enough time to catch their breath, the school shooting came along furnishing the stark and painful realization that so many lay dead at the hands of a crazed individual.  The trauma continued to escalate as parents frantic with worry called the center in the hope of learning something other than the awful reports being broadcast on the Internet and in the media.  One by one, the emergency telecommunicators of Newtown calmly held people at bay because it’s their job to acquire information about critical incidents, not disseminate it to the public unless so directed.  It’s tough knowing the horrific truth and having to put on a game face and tell the public to be calm.

As if losing twenty-six townspeople wasn’t enough, the proverbial salt in the wound was coping with all the strangers in town, most of whom seemed intent upon either obtaining the gory details of the shooting or getting townsfolk to unload their feelings in some kind of cathartic rant.  And just as the media circus was starting to wind down a little, the arrival of the President of the United States unleashed upon the community an army of aides, security personnel, and a new hoard of news-hungry reporters who jostled their way in and whisked their way out within the span of a single news cycle.  If ever a communication center was in need of the Telecommunications Emergency Response Task-Force (TERT), this was it!

Despite the fatigue of dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane, the exhaustion of handling the non-stop onslaught of a media feeding frenzy, and the coordinated multi-level hand-holding that accompanies a presidential visit, the dispatchers of Newtown rallied.  Despite the fact that they had homes and families that were ravaged by Sandy, despite being deprived of power for ten days themselves, despite some having to traverse police lines and crime scene tape to simply go home at the end of their shifts, and despite sharing the horror of what transpired with their friends and neighbors, they rallied.  Despite being yelled at and scoffed at and cried at and sobbed at by desperate citizens clamoring for information to assuage their anxiety, they rallied.  They did what all dispatchers do every day in every emergency communications center… they did the job.

Those who have weathered the test of catastrophic events that attract the international media to their door are few in number, but great in stature.  Columbine, Oak Creek, Tucson, Aurora, Portland and now Newtown are forever linked together as places where the worst of man’s fears became reality.  But those communities are fused together for another reason.  They all share the good fortune of having alert and capable dispatchers.  Those communities have emergency telecommunicators who control the chaos, neutralize the threats, mobilize the assets, and track the action in order to keep everyone as safe as humanly possible.  They are the first to hear the cries of the victims, yet they are the very last that anyone thinks to thank and most often aren’t.   They are first to alert the appropriate emergency services, yet they seldom rate even a mention in the after-action reports.  Dispatchers make critical judgments constantly upon which lives often hinge, yet their pay is at the bottom of the scale.  They are the first responder at every emergency scene, yet when the dust settles, no one remembers the voice on the phone or radio.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: emergency dispatching is simple; it’s just not easy.  It’s simply a matter of taking information from one source and giving it to another.  Simple!  But let the average individual sit in The Chair on just one day such as Newtown had on 14 December and then tell me how just anyone can do the job.  The anger of residents, the distain of the press and media, the anguish and torment of victim’s families, the irritation of field personnel who are at wits-end trying to discern how to cope with the disaster, and the posturing of opportunistic public officials are only a fraction of what emergency telecommunicators can expect when the big one comes. 

Newtown, Aurora and the rest stand as beacons for all who dispatch.  They teach us to prepare with aggressive and substantive training.  They show us to plan out strategies and codify them.  Most of all, they demonstrate how we should fall back upon sound training and follow the tactical plan in order to minimize the collateral damage, and bring the incident to a swift conclusion.

No one has all the answers, least of all me.  But I do know a sound evolution in emergency telecommunications when I see and hear one; Newtown is one for the books.  If you haven’t yet undergone training for active shooter, do so.  If your center has yet to adopt a detailed policy on dealing with school lock-downs, pressure those in charge to make it happen.  If your dispatch center isn’t coordinating its efforts with the field agencies that it dispatches, start. 

There are likely many factors that motivate some berserk shooter who starts spraying bullets around a shopping mall, a movie theater, or a school. Because these killers often take their own lives while they are taking others, we may never learn what their individual motives were.  That being a reality, emergency telecommunicators everywhere need to contemplate the unthinkable and prepare for the absolute worst so that every shift they spend in The Chair is one where they’ll know how to handle whatever comes their way.  Newtown, Connecticut prepared.  Imagine if they hadn’t!  Imagine the consequences if you don’t!     

Just released, the 2012 report, "Active Shooter — Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Management," from the New York City Police Department's Counterterrorism Bureau is a valuable resource for understanding active shooter incidents, and developing effective procedures.

Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”  Paul’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

"From the Chair" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit

Special thanks to Michael Wallach for editorial assistance.

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