Parkland shooting report: Failures in communication and coordination

The continuing challenge with preparation for attacks like Parkland is that each is unique enough to defy any template for prevention and response


King Solomon, regarded as one of the wisest persons to ever live, famously said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The 407-page report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission about the February 14, 2018, shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school, was presented to the Florida Governor and legislature with few surprises. The report in summary: failures in communication and coordination.

The investigation and report were necessary, but the utility of the report for planners, trainers, executives and supervisors in education and emergency services is minimal, consisting of reminders of the things known for decades. The commission included recommendations on fire and medical response, as well as dispatch, in addition to the police response although no EMS, fire service, or communication specialists were among the appointees. The report reiterated the need for immediate solo officer response to active shooters, highlighted the need for interagency communication, cited training deficiencies and emphasized the importance of coordinated incident command. Borrowing from reports from previous mass casualty school events, the report cited a number of physical security recommendations for school facilities.

Timeline of the Parkland school shooting

Un-retrieved bicycles appear inside the fence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Un-retrieved bicycles appear inside the fence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Because of the complex nature of the event, which played out in multiple locations on and off campus, and the number of personnel involved, the report’s narrative of the course of events is hard to visualize. The timeline and descriptions do, however, present the rapidity of the attack and the many pockets of independent individual and group decisions and movements by responders.

The Parkland killer arrived at the school at 2:19, fired the first shots at 2:21 with four victims, fired the last shot at 2:27, and was ordering a soda at a Subway restaurant at 2:51.

In contrast to the killer’s seven minutes of hellish fury, confusion marked the rescuers’ response. Campus personnel were responding to a fire alarm (set off by dust from bullet shattered building material) at 2:22. The first radio report of “possible shots fired” went over the air from the school at 2:23 from school resource officer Scot Peterson, who is mercilessly slow roasted in the report. At about 2:25 the first announcement of an assailant – the school’s “code red” was made by one of the schools “campus monitors” over the school’s internal radio system. At 2:32 the first police officer entered the building where the killer had left his carnage and was now hiding in the crowd of students evacuating.

The first law enforcement team was formed and had entered the building at 2:38 and intentional mass evacuation began at 2:40. An active search for the killer continued for 10 more minutes based on the mistaken belief that video images of the killer were in real time until searching officers were informed that video being examined was on a delay. Meanwhile the killer was at a nearby McDonald’s chatting with a student whose sister had been shot by the young man sharing the booth. A joint command was established at 3:21.

At 3:07 the last surviving victim was carried from the school by SWAT members. By 3:17 all of the classrooms had been accessed by police. At 3:21, commanders from both primary law enforcement responding agencies established communication with one another. The killer was apprehended without incident two miles away 20 minutes later.

As with most mass casualty attacks, the majority of responder activity happens after the attack has been completed. Apprehension of surviving suspects is typically at or near the scene. Of all the first responder actions critiqued by the report most occurred after the attack and had no bearing on preventing the killer’s course of conduct. The report clearly articulated that no deaths could be attributed to post-attack response failures.

Report criticizes SRO Deputy Scot Peterson

From the White House to the courthouse, the actions of school resource officer Scot Peterson, have been described charitably as cowardly. The report makes no effort to remain objective about that label. While others are described as taking up positions or deploying, Peterson “hid,” “retreated,” or “fled.” These are qualitative descriptors that fail to consider the ambiguity of conditions in the unfolding of the tragedy.

While Peterson’s attorney may be the only person interested in defending the SRO’s actions that day, objective consideration must include the matrix of confusing information Peterson faced in the opening moments of the attack. Peterson was faced with auditory uncertainty about the location of the noise initially identified as possibly fireworks (a more likely event that he may have experienced in his 28 years as an SRO), along with the activation of a fire alarm. There were several other personnel who reported the same uncertainties. The report makes no mention of a re-enactment or acoustic study of how the shots sounded from Peterson’s first position. His subsequent choices to not enter the building may have been fear based, or may have been poor decisions in retrospect, but investigators should not completely disallow the possibility that it was a decision based on his own thoughts about being available as an intelligence gatherer based on his unique knowledge of the school while others made a coordinated entry.

The clearest failure of the school’s security lies at the feet of campus monitor Andrew Medina who was the first to see the killer – whom he recognized and knew to be a problem to the school – carrying a long black bag and behaving suspiciously. Medina was not assertive in contacting the killer, who continued to walk unencumbered to complete his murderous plan.

How can police prepare for future attacks?

The continuing challenge with preparation for attacks like Parkland is that, although we categorize them under the heading of mass casualty, each is unique enough to defy any template for prevention and response. This report does not take an all-hazards approach to school safety, but centers only on violent external attacks. A holistic view might uncover conflicts between mitigation of lone wolf attacks and dealing with other hazards such as property crime, bomb threats, tornados, hurricanes or floods. For example:

  • The report criticizes open gates around the school while reporting delays in the ability of first responders to breach the fencing to commence rescue.
  • The report insists that every first responder barge into the kill zone at the same time criticizing other responders for not gaining actionable intelligence or setting up a command post, and criticism for trying to establish a perimeter, then for not having one.
  • There is praise for spontaneous self-deployment and criticism of the self-deployed who put themselves at risk of friendly fire.
  • There is praise for those who took charge and criticism of those who took charge.
  • There is commentary on the need for evacuation and criticism of premature evacuation.
  • There is criticism that a “code red” announcement was delayed, with acknowledgement that many did not know what response that required.

Our steely determination that the solo officer response is the most effective approach will eventually be found wanting. When killers, who know full well what law enforcement strategies are, begin planning for those pistol-bearing single officers (the report critiques officers who delayed by getting equipment from their trunk) there will be a new wrinkle in what is now accepted as a no-brainer.

An important aspect of human behavior not addressed directly by this report and many others is the human tendency to avoid being the boy who cried wolf, or Chicken Little:

  • Why are gunshots almost always first identified as firecrackers?
  • Why do personnel see suspicious behavior but hesitate to act on it?
  • Why do those with authority to do call a “code red” fail to do so? (And why “code” anything – the killer knows what is going on so why not just announce a dangerous intruder in plain language?)
  • And why make fleeing (evacuation) our default strategy when not a single k-12 student has been killed when behind a locked classroom door?

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission is an important chronicle of an important event, and a necessary exercise. That it testifies to what we already knew we should be doing but haven’t gotten around to is perhaps the saddest commentary of all.

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