Investigators combing through evidence, witness accounts, 911 transcripts and the rest of the mountain of material associated with the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will eventually release a report that details what happened.
When that report is released, emergency personnel can look at what worked and what didn’t. They can also begin to incorporate improvements that Parkland officials have already deemed necessary, said Cumberland County’s Emergency Operations Manager Michele Parsons.
For the county’s Emergency Management Operations Division, preparing for a potential active assailant situation takes place with using the same computer programs that it would use during their everyday work.
Parsons is careful to use the phrase “active assailant” when she talks about the Emergency Operations Center’s role in preparing for and responding to school emergencies.
“It’s not always a gun that’s hurting and killing people,” she said.
The gun, though, offers a layer of psychological removal for the perpetrator, who doesn’t have to get as close to his victims. He can be a couple of hundred yards away with a rifle or 20 yards away with a handgun.
“I don’t have to look you in the eye to give you harm. I don’t have to deal with the mental acceptance of what I’m doing,” Parsons said.
Center personnel also do a lot of what Parsons called “tabletop training” through FEMA in which they are presented with a scenario. These exercises are conducted alongside other agencies, including some that have dealt with active assailant situations, so that the lessons learned in one location can be transferred to another.
In the exercise, they look at what they’ve done to plan, and then they walk through the steps of their active shooter plan, if that’s the given scenario. They think about things like where specific apparatus should park when they arrive on the scene, where the ambulances should be located and similar details.
All the while cameras in the EOC are capturing their work so FEMA and the staff can evaluate it to make changes to improve their response.
Because of the lessons learned at the global level, Parsons said they have learned that the best approach to an active assailant situation at a school is to send a pre-determined list of apparatus to the scene and give the officer in charge at the scene the responsibility of placing them where they can best be used.
“It’s easier to turn them around than to need them and not have enough there,” Parsons said.
Emergency officials and administrators acknowledge there is considerable crossover from other incidents that help to inform their planning for potential active assailant situations.
In November 2012, a science experiment at Wilson Middle School in the Carlisle Area School District went awry, causing a chemical fire in the classroom that injured eight people.
After that incident, Parsons said the personnel at the EOC came back and worked with the district and the first responders to see what was effective during the response and what wasn’t and to decide what needed to be changed.
For example, outside agencies involved in the response to an incident initially would go to the EOC, then go to the scene for a press briefing. The better alternative is do the press briefing at the EOC where the county has the facility, the parking and the internet capacity to offer press briefings without bringing more people to the scene of the incident.
Another operational change came after a March 2013 crash in which a bus carrying members of the Seton Hill University women’s lacrosse team crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Carlisle, killing two adults and an unborn child.
This was an incident totally unrelated to a school assailant that allowed EOC personnel to work through their protocol, and helped them to develop their procedures for hosting web-based press briefings, Parsons said.
Officials had to ensure they had complete accuracy as to how many occupants of the bus were transported to area hospitals, which they could do by coordinating the school’s bus roster with the computer program that tracks the location of a patient through the medical system.
Parsons said through those checks, they realized that someone was listed on the roster who was not accounted for at the scene. Knowing the driver had been ejected, there was a fear that another person had been ejected as well. As crews checked the scene, calls were made back to the school. Officials discovered that a student had been sick that morning and did not make the trip. The last-minute change had not been noted on the roster.
Training and real-life experience have prepared the EOC to meet the challenge of an incident in an area school district, but there is always one factor for which they cannot plan: the human response from the assailant, those being targeted in the attack or desperate parents trying to reach their children.
“I have confidence that it’s going to work well. I can’t guarantee a damn thing. Because the human element that gets involved can throw it all out of whack,” she said.