Las Vegas: First responders need to work as a team, can't 'unsee' what they've seen

Photos courtesy of AP/Worldwide

At least 59 people are dead and more than 500 are injured after a gunman perched on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel opened fire on a crowd at an outdoor music festival. The Sunday night shooting is now the deadliest mass shooting the country has ever seen.


Reacting to the news, a SWAT captain and fire chief from two of America's largest cities stressed the importance of police, fire, and other emergency officials working together to plan for and respond to active shooter and other hostile events. The two authorities are part of a proactive group currently working to identify new ways to minimize the carnage that these tragic incidents inflict. Not only are active shooter events becoming more frequent in the United States, but the time it takes for a new shooting to become the deadliest in U.S. history is also shrinking. Forty-one years passed between the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 killed) and the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting (16 killed), which previously held the record for the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. It was then nine years before the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando (49 killed) topped the Virginia Tech shooting. Sadly, only one year later, yesterday's shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival claims the record. 


“It is the new normal,” said Jack Ewell, a police captain who commands special operations for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. “After each [active shooter event] we scrutinize the incident and try to learn and determine what additional measures we can put in place to try and stop them, and if we can't stop them, to minimize the casualties involved.” Ewell's department serves 10 million people scattered over 4,000 square miles of land and has already sent personnel to Las Vegas to assist with the city's recovery from the incident. 


One of the additional measures that could be explored in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting is increasing security measures at hotels, such as searching baggage as guests check in, said Otto Drozd, the chief of Orange County Fire Rescue in Orlando, which responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting along with other local, state, and federal authorities. “If we had instituted something at hotels to check baggage, would it have prevented the Vegas incident?” Drozd asked himself after hearing about the news this morning. It would be a similar change to how security was ramped up at airports following 9/11.


Both Drozd and Ewell are members of the technical committee for NFPA 3000, Standard for Preparedness and Response to Active Shooter and/or Hostile Events. The committee has met twice so far, and the standard is slated to be released sometime late next year or in early 2019. An article on the development of the standard appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of NFPA Journal, along with a podcast on the topic. Additionally, at a meeting at NFPA's Massachusetts headquarters late last month, the Urban Fire Forum endorsed a position paper on preparedness and a unified response to hostile events, which references NFPA 3000.


What's critical is that the standard draws from the knowledge and experiences of every entity involved in responding to active shooter and other hostile events. “It's a cross functional standard which is unique,” said Drozd. “We have the perspective of law enforcement, fire, EMS, and hospitals at the local state, and federal level.” Although each entity takes on a different role during these events—for example, law enforcement initially must be focused on identifying and eliminating the threat, while fire and EMS are entirely focused on aiding victims—it's the interoperability of everybody involved that leads to a successful response. “We have to go at it as one team,” said Ewell. While Ewell's department already uses many of the best practices that will be outlined in NFPA 3000, he underscored the importance of the new standard so that first responders in all jurisdictions can be working off the same sheet of music, so to speak. 


AP_17275617412955In Orlando, one key takeaway from the Pulse Nightclub shooting was the need to plan in advance for a designated, safe, and sufficiently sized site to house witnesses, less critically injured victims, and families of those affected. Drozd indicated that his city needed to relocate their staging area three or four times in the days that followed the shooting. Another lesson learned was the importance of quickly establishing a hotline for loved ones to call and inquire about victims. In Orlando, some families waited for days before learning the fate of club-goers. Las Vegas authorities quickly announced a number today for families, friends, and concert-goers to call with questions, concerns, and first-hand perspectives.


Beyond the operational aspects of active shooter and other hostile events that NFPA 3000 will address, it will also aim to shed light on the more lasting impacts these events can have on communities, such as the toll they take on first responders' behavioral health. “Some of the things that first responders see cannot be unseen,” said Drozd. “So while the community's recovery is a long, heartbreaking, and collaborative process, we should not lose sight of the tremendous toll that incidents like these can have on our first responders.”

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Angelo Verzoni
Staff Writer, NFPA Journal

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