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What If Columbine Were Mine?

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-12-14
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Originally published in our June, 2006 issue.

Seven years ago this month, on April 20, 1999 the word Columbine entered our collective vocabulary as the singular definition of school violence.  Although not the first, and regrettably, not the last such incident, it served to bring attention to the fact that tragedies of unimaginable magnitudes can – and do – happen almost anywhere.  Obviously, no one wants to think about the aftermath of widespread violence, but the harsh reality is that we are all faced with the same challenge.

It is a rare PSAP, indeed, that does not have at least one school within their primary area of concern.  And with those schools come an awesome responsibility.  While we historically planned for major operations at airports and refineries, for example, few considered an educational institution as a high-risk occupancy until Columbine put Jefferson County Colorado on all of our virtual maps.  If we did little to plan before, the most appropriate question we can ask ourselves is, what have we done since?  How have we improved our readiness to deal with similar situations in our own communities?  What if Columbine were mine?

The first concern is obviously the initial response.  What information are you going to get?  How accurate is it going to be?  How will you deal with conflicting reports?  You may have contact with any number of individuals, ranging from passers-by, to school administrators, to students on cell phones, to the actors of the violence themselves.  Obviously, law enforcement will be the primary responders, but will the local department have enough resources?  Who will be called next?  Is a plan in place, will this call come from the incident commander, or will it be up to telecommunicators to find the necessary resources. 

In this country, we almost automatically assume violence to involve firearms, but what if explosives, or even chemical or biological weapons are involved?  While the SWAT team may be appropriate for the first, what other teams will be needed to deal with extraordinary threats?  Are security officers already on scene?  If so, are they aware of the call?  Obviously, one of the first priorities of the communications center must be the notification of all units in the general vicinity or those in potential danger.

With violence, we can also regrettably assume injuries.  Where will first responders stage?  How can we assure that they are not sent into a non-secure location?  When volunteer agencies are involved, what type of accountability system can be used, and how can we keep these responders – some of whom may be parents of students themselves – from placing themselves in harms way?

What mass casualty plans are in place in our community?  Who has to be notified to begin the process?  And how will the PSAP deal with the influx of telephone calls from concerned parents, off-duty personnel, and the media?  As with any high profile incident, a rash of telephone calls should be anticipated.

Past the initial reports from the scene, how will you keep up with the status of events, as well as with the status of all units?  Will a mobile command post be dispatched?  If so, who will staff it?  Are there security cameras on campus?  If so, does the PSAP have any means of accessing this feed?  Are there any other methods, outside of the normal, that can be used to obtain additional information?

In addition to all of the operational concerns, there must also be some thought given to taking care of our own.  What type of debriefing is available?  What other types of assistance may PSAP personnel require?  Earlier, we mentioned the possibility of first responder parents.  Are we prepared to deal with call takers and dispatchers who have children in the affected school?

There are any number of questions that can be asked that are almost as disturbing.  Some schools are actually part of larger complexes that house thousands of students.  How can we cope with mobile violence that actually moves from one building to another?  How can scenes such as this be secured?  And what about other unusual circumstances such as sporting events in progress.  How does this change our thinking?

Albert Einstein once aid that, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school.”  Unfortunately, we cannot afford to forget the lessons that school violence has taught.

Our PSAP Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.  As an independent columnist for 9-1-1 magazine, Barry’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

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