Sandy Hook, Aurora leaders share mass casualty commonalities

Law enforcement leaders must understand that the aftermath of an event will last months and years after the incident


Article updated on November 7, 2017.

No community, large or small, is immune to mass casualty events. At the 121st 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 Chief Michael Kehoe of Newtown, Connecticut.

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. (Photo courtesy American Military University)
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. (Photo courtesy American Military University)

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

Chief Ronnie Bastin of Lexington, Kentucky, agreed, saying that even eight years after the crash of Comair Flight 5191 that claimed 49 lives, there are trigger points for his officers.

“You must remember that your folks will carry a lot of baggage from this incident,” said Bastin.

Law enforcement leaders must remain vigilant regarding officer wellness and 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,” said Bastin.

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 Captain Paul O’Keefe of Aurora, Colorado. 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 MCI response training suggestions from the panelists:

  • When training, use existing communications 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.

Law enforcement leaders must also realize 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 Media relations

One topic discussed in detail 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 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 tips shared during the session to help guide officials as they prepare to respond to a mass casualty:

  1. Identify locations that can hold large groups of people. Contact individuals in charge of those facilities and develop plans.
  2. Provide response support. Have a plan for providing support for responders. Mental health should be a priority for officers and employees.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Anticipate additional threats. 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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