Protocols are in place. Plans have been made with the hope they never have to be used.
But what happens if they do?
Before Columbine, police protocol held the first officers on the scene of a school shooting outside until the SWAT team arrived. Post-Columbine, police began to send in rapid response teams that initially had no less than four members, said Chief Christopher Raubenstine of the Silver Spring Township Police Department.
Now, it can be a single officer.
If there’s a student resource officer on the scene, his first responsibility is to transmit any information he has so that everyone else knows what is happening. If backup is seconds away, he can wait. If backup is further out, it’s a judgment call, Raubenstine said.
“Most likely, the judgment is, if he’s hearing shots, if any of us are hearing shots, we’re going in,” he said.
Wes Schmidt, student resource officer in the Cumberland Valley School District, said communicating the location of the incident is vital, especially in a building as large as Cumberland Valley High School. If an officer responds to the wrong part of the building, he could miss the entire incident.
“If we have an active incident at the school and it goes out, within five, 10 minutes, we are going to have a minimum of 15 different agencies on scene, Raubenstine said.
On its best day, the Silver Spring Police Department might have 10 people working, Raubenstine said. Half of those who end up responding to an event will be off-duty officers from Silver Spring and its surrounding townships who may not be as familiar with the building as the officers who walk its halls routinely in training.
“We really need to know our stuff because they’re going to be coming to us for direction,” Schmidt said.
As an SRO is deciding whether to enter the scene, the phone will ring at the county’s 911 center.
The first order of business is to assure that it really is some sort of active assailant, rather than someone walking along the edge of the woods with a gun during hunting season, said Michele Parsons, emergency operations manager for Cumberland County.
“As soon as they’re able to confirm that it’s some kind of active assailant incident, anything that’s going to incur large injuries or fatalities, they have a predisposed box card that establishes who is to be sent,” she said.
The next step is to make sure all of the responding units, whether from inside the county or out, can communicate with each other. The county has already identified talk group channels for responders and know which patches need to be made to assure all radios work with each other.
“Communication is going to be a bugger no matter how small or large any event is. What we have tried to do is identify the known issues, and how we can mitigate them and make them a little easier,” Parsons said.
The county’s emergency operations center will begin to ramp up even as emergency personnel make their way to the scene.
The center’s mission is to provide aid to those involved, including the schools, responders and hospitals, as well as to provide support to the 911 center that will be inundated with phone calls. Some of those calls will be related to the school incident. Others will continue to be the routine day-to-day calls for assistance. Still more will be parents or the press looking for information about what is happening.
The EOC coordinates everything involved with responding to the incident. Long tables preset with computers are labeled with the role that person will fill when the center is in operation. Binders at each station contain all the contact information and procedures the person working that station needs to know to do their job.
Large screens at the front of the room display predesignated channels including local and national news channels as well as a channel for weather.
“You don’t think about it, but the first responders need to know what the weather is. They need to know if there’s a thunderstorm coming, if there’s snow coming, ice coming, because it’s going to have a direct impact on what they’re doing there,” Parsons said.
Every school in the county has an emergency plan on file with the county. If something happens, the EOC immediately pulls out the plan to begin coordinating details such as where the center to reunify parents and students will be located and where the media will be staged.
In the midst of all this activity, the county’s communications team would start working on the release of confirmed information about the event as well as keeping up with phone calls and coordinating the message from each of the entities involved in the incident.
“Every single responder, response agency and the school are all going to have something to say to the media, and the last thing we want to do is have a contradiction,” Parsons said.
The team has to be careful also with what types of information it releases due to privacy issues as well as the fact that the school is now the site of an ongoing investigation.
“The last thing we want to do is be responsible for the wrong information to get out that could prevent somebody from being able to go to trial and get a good conviction,” Parsons said.
The incident begins with a call for the people running the EOC, but it’s ending is far less certain.
“We know this is going to be a multiday event for the investigation, at a minimum. From the get-go, we are looking at no less than six hours is my initial time frame for my emergency responders to be committed,” Parsons said.
The EOC also sets in motion plans to manage traffic, as most of the county’s schools are on main roads, Parsons said.
“If we don’t manage that traffic from the start, that’s going to get bogged down, and emergency services, ambulances aren’t going to get in. The fire trucks aren’t going to get in. Some of the police officers aren’t going to get in if we have private or commercial cars that are coming in because they feel they have to be there for some reason,” she said.
As the EOC does its work, Parsons also keeps a close eye on the welfare of the employees. She has to make sure the dispatchers can keep doing their jobs despite what they may have heard on the other end of the line or what their personal connections to the school may be.
“We do have some staff here that their kids do go to local schools. How do I take care of my dispatcher who just took a phone call for his child’s school and he can hear shooting in the background?” Parsons said.
If the dispatcher can’t continue, Parsons then runs through the questions. What support do they need? Do we drive them to the school because we know they won’t go home? Do we sit them in the EOC? Do we bring in a mental health professional to be with them?
“The last thing we want to do is send anybody home. They’re alone and they’re going to dwell on it,” Parsons said.
Securing the scene
Back at the scene, first responders are descending on an incident that may already have come to an end.
Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary around 9:35 a.m. in December 2012, and shot himself about five minutes later, according to the state attorney’s report on the killings. The police timeline from Parkland says Nikolas Cruz, the alleged gunman, was in the building for only seven minutes before he ran away from the scene by mingling among evacuating students.
“The initial thing is going to be done in minutes, and we’re going to do that on instinct. We hear the gunfire. We go to the gunfire. We try to help,” Raubenstine said.
As police response training has evolved, it has changed from only moving past the wounded in search of the assailant to having teams that work with the EMS and fire personnel. These teams go into a “warm area,” an area the assailant may have already passed through, to start treating the wounded while the police maintain cover, Raubenstine said.
Raubenstine said police have also worked with staff and personnel at the district to help them understand what they may see when police respond to an incident. Officers walk a fine line between revealing too much about their protocols and making sure that people understand they will be staring at guns, and that the police will not know who is an assailant and who is a victim at first.
“Until we can find these things out, you need to shut up. You need to do exactly what we say. Don’t argue. Don’t ask questions,” he said.
The students? They’re different. This is all they know, having grown up in the post-Columbine era.
“The kids will react better than the adults,” Raubenstine said.
Parents pose a different challenge in securing the scene.
“Every parent in the history of the world is showing up, and how do you keep them away?” Raubenstine said.
The district will send out notifications of an active incident through its communications systems, and direct parents to a reunification center to pick up their children. Since parents want most to be where their child is, most will go to that location.
Still, some will go straight to the school. It’s easy enough to block off the driveway to the school, but then parents will park on side roads and walk across the fields. The question, then, is how many of them in this day and age are going to be bringing their own guns, Raubenstine said.
These parents, too, need to make sure to follow the orders of police.
“I get a call for a man with a gun. I don’t know who’s who. You, in your mind, know you’re the good guy. If I tell you to put it down … listen to what I say,” Raubenstine said.
Once police determine what is going on, the gun would be returned — unloaded.
When the assault on the school comes to an end, students and their parents are finally reunited.
The district would work quickly to set up a reunification center where web-based systems can be accessed to show school personnel who is permitted to pick up a student, said Dr. Richard Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District. The locations of those centers are set in the school’s safety plan.
One of the biggest challenges in reunification is getting everyone to follow directions.
The parent is torn between a child who is texting them from the scene, and the district that is telling them to go to the designated reunification center. It’s vital that the parents go where the district tells them to go. Think about the gridlock that happens if the parents don’t follow directions, Fry said.
Parents arriving at the reunification site want to be able to take their children home. Some will. Others won’t.
Through its web-based hospital incident management program, the EOC will start alerting hospitals to the incident soon after the call comes in. The emergency room responds to that notification with information about what they can handle. For example, Geisinger Holy Spirit might say it can take three patients with life-threatening injuries and 15 of the walking wounded, Parsons said.
That information is transmitted to the ambulances so they can make an informed decision about where to send the injured.
The center will also communicate with ambulances to know who was transported and where they were taken. The center has the capacity to coordinate with hospitals outside the area in the event that someone is stabilized at a local hospital and then taken to a different hospital for specialty care.
“Then, we can help feed that back to the schools. That way, they are able to know where all of their students went to, and we can also help to identify who went to what facility so we can let the parents know what facility their student is probably going to be at,” Parsons said.
Districts have also considered, and planned for, the worst case scenario of telling a parent that their child has been killed in an incident at the school.
Big Spring has established protocol for who and how it will man a reunification site, and questions of how to tell a parent and who will support them as they receive the news have been “absolutely considered within the make-up of our team or teams,” Fry said.
Bringing students and parents back together ends the crisis phase of the incident. Next comes the recovery phase, and an investigation into what happened and why. That can take some time, and will be difficult for those involved.
During a training session, Raubenstine met the man who led the investigation after Sandy Hook. In that session, he shared everything he learned in the aftermath of the massacre.
“I don’t envy him the nightmares he has,” he said.
“We do have some staff here that their kids do go to local schools. How do I take care of my dispatcher who just took a phone call for his child’s school and he can hear shooting in the background?” Michele Parsons, emergency operations center manager
“Most likely, the judgment is, if he’s hearing shots, if any of us are hearing shots, we’re going in.” Chief Christopher Raubenstine, Silver Spring Township Police Department