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The Shooting at Virginia Tech
Author: Randall D. Larson
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue.
On the morning of April 16, 2007, the quiet calm that hung over the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, southwestern Virginia, was pierced by the sharp pop of gunshots and the cries and screams of panic and pain. Within 11 minutes, the shots were silenced, but the cries of the wounded and the terrified continued, as did the sharp commands and crackling radios of police, fire, and EMS responders.
What occurred in those 11 minutes, what had been carefully planned and premeditated long beforehand by student Seung-Hui Cho, whose mental instability, inner rage, and resentment against uncertain oppressors climaxed in these mass killings, was the deadliest school shooting in US history. Cho methodically murdered 32 students and faculty, wounded 17 more, and had plenty of additional ammunition available to continue his deadly spree had he not chosen to end his own life as police advanced toward his position.
Established in 1872 as a military college, the 2,600-acre Virginia Tech campus is located in the New River Valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains region. It currently maintains a faculty of 1,304 staff members and a student body of more than 26,000.
The university is protected by its own police force and rescue service. The Virginia Tech Police Department (VTPD) is dispatched by an on-campus public safety dispatch facility that handles all 9-1-1 calls made on campus. The VTPD 9-1-1 Center currently has eight full-time dispatchers, with two scheduled per shift. The center uses an HTE SunGard OSSI CAD system for dispatch.
“We are a diverse community that changes from year to year, with many international students,” said VTPD’s Lt. Debbi Morgan. “We are called upon to do many nontraditional things such as unlocking campus buildings.” In addition to taking 9-1-1 calls from campus [the university has its own phone system] and dispatching campus police, VTPD telecommunicators also dispatch on-campus EMS and the Blacksburg Fire Department. Blacksburg PD is dispatched by its own center, and the Montgomery County 9-1-1 Center serves the surrounding area.
Cho’s murder spree begins at 7:15 AM with the shooting of two students in a dormitory called West Ambler Johnson (WAJ) Hall, a coed residence hall housing 894 students. Normally the hall is accessible to its residents only, with a magnetic key card entry; however, possibly by following another student in, Cho gains entry to the facility and shoots to death 19-year-old student Emily Hilscher and her 22-year-old advisor, Ryan Christopher Clark, in a dormitory room. Cho leaves the scene and returns to his own dorm next door in Harper Hall, where he changes out of his bloodstained clothes and prepares to commence his primary assault. He also mails a package to NBC News in New York containing photos and videotape in which he expresses rage and resentment, and alludes to a coming massacre.
While the shooting is occurring in WAJ, the morning day shift at the VTPD dispatch center is just settling in. The shift begins at 7 AM. Normal staffing is two dispatchers and a supervisor. On the morning of April 16, 2007, the second dispatcher has taken two hours’ leave and is coming in at 9 AM; the supervisor is scheduled in at 8:30 AM. “It seemed to be a typical Monday morning,” recalled one dispatcher. The 9-1-1 center is set up with two full-service positions that can handle both call taking and radio dispatch; a third position is set up for call taking only.
The first call reporting the incident at WAJ comes in on an administrative telephone line at 7:20 AM; it is a secondhand report that a female student has apparently fallen from her loft bed and is down on the floor. The VTPD dispatcher alerts the campus rescue squad to the medical call and also dispatches a police unit as per protocol. The PD unit arrives to find two people shot inside the room; he immediately requests additional police resources.
“Calls were made to notify all the appropriate personnel,” said a communications supervisor. “The dispatcher asked for assistance from office personnel until the second dispatcher and supervisor arrived. The officer called for a supervisor to respond to the scene and additional rescue units. The scene was immediately secured, with officers posted at all entrances and exits.”
As classes begin across campus at 8 AM, police focus their investigation on Hilscher’s boyfriend, known to be an avid gun user, who had dropped her off at WAJ moments before the shooting. An evidence technician and detective from Blacksburg PD (BPD) are requested to assist with processing the crime scene. VTPD Chief Wendell Flinchum notifies campus administration, which prompts a meeting of the university’s policy group to plan how to notify students of the killings. They are told by police that the possible suspect in the shootings is believed to be off campus.
Additional VTPD and BPD officers assist with securing WAJ entrances and with the investigation. Investigators from the Virginia State Police (VSP) also assist at the crime scene. The VTPD Emergency Response Team (ERT) is summoned to the scene to stand by in Blacksburg in case an arrest is needed or a search warrant must be executed.
The Shootings at Norris Hall
Second period classes begin at 9 AM. Shortly thereafter, while crime scene investigation continues at WAJ, Cho is spotted inside Norris Hall, an engineering building across campus. From the inside, he chains the doors shut on the hall’s three main entrances, effectively securing the building from entry and exit. No one reports noticing this.
At 9:24 AM, Hilscher’s boyfriend is located and detained by a Montgomery County deputy sheriff; VTPD detectives and a VSP trooper assist in questioning him. At 9:26 AM, the campus administration sends an email to campus staff, faculty, and students informing them of the dormitory shooting.
Then, at 9:40 AM, Cho’s shooting rampage begins at Norris Hall. Within 11 minutes, Cho has fired 174 rounds, killed 30, and wounded 17 students and faculty. Several teachers are killed by Cho as they barricade themselves against classroom doors to prevent Cho from entering the rooms and shooting the students inside.
The first 9-1-1 call of the shootings at Norris Hall is received by a BPD dispatcher at 9:41 AM. Once identified as occurring on campus, the call is transferred to VTPD. Within one minute, VTPD has dispatched all available officers to an active shooting at Norris Hall; at the same time, all county EMS units are requested to staff and respond as well, in anticipation of multiple patients.
The first officers arrive at Norris Hall at 9:45 AM and hear shots from inside the hall. Hesitating briefly to ensure they are not being fired upon themselves, they rush to the entrances but find each of them chained shut. Attempts to shoot open the locks fail. Campus administration is advised of the new shootings.
At 9:50 AM, officers use a shotgun to shoot open the ordinary lock of a fourth entrance that leads to a machine shop and was out of Cho’s reach to chain shut. Entering the building, officers hear continual gunfire. They follow the sounds to the second floor. The VTPD and BPD ERTs arrive at Norris Hall, each team equipped with a tactical paramedic.
At 9:51 AM, Cho shoots himself in the head just as police reach the second floor. Investigators surmise that the officer’s shotgun blast to open the door alerted Cho to their arrival, prompting his suicide. The second floor is secured by 9:52 AM, and tactical medics are allowed entrance to begin triage.
Dispatch Center Impact
The shootings and related activities impacted the VTPD dispatch center workload significantly, especially since at the time of the first two shootings, only one dispatcher was on duty, aided by office staff on the phones. “This center and this dispatcher had never had a scene like this,” one of VTPD’s dispatchers told 9-1-1 Magazine. “The center then had to field phone calls from concerned parents, faculty/staff, and media. [Along with this,] the normal everyday calls were also occurring.”
Dispatchers at VTPD and BPD received numerous cell phone calls from students and faculty, including several from victims. One of Cho’s victims in Room 211, grazed twice in the head while speaking to 9-1-1 on a cell phone, played dead but kept the line open while Cho continued his methodical barrage of gunfire, all the while saying nothing.
We asked VTPD dispatchers what the mood was in the dispatch center during the active shooting. “High stress, worry, upset, mad, and extremely tense,” was the reply. “It was very busy, with phones ringing off the hook.” One dispatcher handled the radio, and the other one handled the phones. “There was a student intern in the center who was taking notes and writing down times,” explained one dispatcher. “There were officers from around the region who were showing up, wanting to assist. These officers were used for patrol. Dispatchers also came in from other agencies and were used in the communications center.”
While VTPD’s normal call handling consists of 400 to 500 calls per day, more than 2,000 calls were processed on April 16. In addition to handling the 9-1-1 calls during the shooting and the even greater influx of ongoing calls in its aftermath, VTPD dispatchers supported the command and coordination and scene safety aspects of the event. “A command post was set up in the field, and the supervisor in the center became the liaison with that command center,” reported Lt. Morgan. “There was a lot of communication using Nextel Direct Connect. Radio communications were also utilized; however, they were of a somewhat-limited capability [when interfacing] other law enforcement agencies [due to proprietary frequencies].”
The main challenges posed by this event, for both 9-1-1 call takers and radio dispatchers, centered on limited resources such as dispatch center personnel and available telephone lines. “We had multiple calls from media that we were eventually able to send to University Relations, which helped,” said a dispatcher. These ranged from false reports of shootings elsewhere on campus on the 16 to calls summoning ERT units days later.
In addition to assistance from surrounding law enforcement agencies, dispatchers from Salem, Vinton, and the Virginia State Police came in to assist in the VTPD dispatch center. “They all sent dispatchers to help so our people could go home and sleep for a while,” said Lt. Morgan. “The outside dispatchers quickly learned our CAD system and were able to respond to all calls. We had at least one volunteer dispatcher in our center who was trained in critical stress debriefing.”
“These agencies voluntarily came and worked for almost two months,” said Lt. Morgan. “This was in addition to our staff putting in many hours of overtime.”
Gradually, over several weeks, the VTPD dispatch center was able to resume somewhat “normal” operations. “Staff didn’t really have time to absorb what had happened until after May graduation,” said Lt. Morgan. “At that time, we were able to go back to a more normal schedule, and people were able to have a little downtime.”
In addition to normal calls for service, the shootings prompted numerous false calls of suspicious activity throughout the week, perhaps due to the heightened awareness and additional sense of caution that pervaded the campus. “Things were tense for weeks as threats – reports of suspicious activities, persons, packages – continued to come in, and also we had multiple calls from people who either wanted information or wanted to ‘interpret’ the event for us.” Each suspicious report required the dispatch of VTPD officers – often supplemented with state troopers – to investigate. The VSP maintained a command post on campus; reports of suspicious activity received by dispatch were referred to the VSP command post and investigated from there.
Much has been studied of Cho’s mental status at the time of the shootings. A Governor’s Review Panel concluded in August that early warnings of Cho’s mental instability were not recognized by mental health officials that might have prompted alarm about his potential to unravel. Initial criticism by the media, based on hysterical on-scene reports about the police response, were discounted by the review panel, which found that the overall public safety response to the shooting was “proficient, professional, and effective.”
Allegations that earlier warning about the first shooting might have helped secure Norris Hall from the severity of the second attack were also discounted. There was no hard evidence that the WAJ shootings were the first wave in a spree that would commence hours later across campus. In an independent review, Archangel Group – a nonprofit organization providing antiterrorism training, consulting, and security assessment that spent a week studying the VTPD response – found that, from the perspectives of preparation and training, joint operations ability and experience, not only did the two initially responding agencies not fail in any way, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any agencies to have performed better.
“When the true elapsed time periods are understood,” noted Archangel’s Senior Consultant John Giduck, in an initial assessment report, “from first 9-1-1 call, to emergency radio contact to SWAT, to response, movement to the attack site, organization and coordination of tactical teams, breaching of the building, and speed of movement through the building to the shooter – it will be universally recognized that it would be almost impossible for any unit to have handled the operation with greater speed or professionalism.”
Few reports have examined the challenge of the Virginia Tech shootings from the perspective of the dispatch center, but our discussion with VTPD’s communications professionals reinforced that the communications and resource management support given this incident by the dispatchers at Virginia Tech and their colleagues at Blacksburg, Montgomery County, and elsewhere in the region was as proficient, professional, and effective as that of their counterparts in the field.
“This was and is biggest challenge many of us will ever face,” concluded dispatch supervisor Denise Linkenhoker. “I am not sure you can ever truly be ready for something like this to happen, although you train and know it can.
“I would like to thank all of the communication centers, law enforcement agencies, and citizens around the country that sent cards, letters, care packages, food, etc., to show their care and concern for our department,” added Linkenhoker. “Words cannot express how touched we all are to know so many people were thinking about us during this tragedy.”
Lessons Learned from Virginia Tech Dispatch
- It benefited us to have our dispatchers handling specific duties. Because normally our dispatchers are dual call takers and dispatchers, when they divided the two duties, they were able to focus on their specific responsibility.
- Having a supervisor in the room who could make command decisions was one of the best assets to the dispatchers.
- Having a dedicated phone line for outbound calling was a necessity. Our inbound phone lines stayed lit up, and we could hardly get a line out.
- Having a good relationship with area law enforcement was a tremendous asset. They showed up without being asked and assisted however we needed them to.
- Virginia Tech PD Dispatch
This report is based on interviews with and input received with thanks from Virginia Tech PD Lt. Debbi Morgan, dispatcher April Blankenship, and dispatch supervisor Denise Linkenhoker; input and assistance from Steve Souder, Montgomery County 9-1-1, is also acknowledged with appreciation. The Report of the Review Panel to Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine about the shootings was also instrumental in building the timeline of events. (The 247-page report can be downloaded from www.governor.virginia.gov.)