Managing the Worst Case Incident

It has not happened yet, but after the last couple of years of involvement in the Seven Circles of Hell known as Emergency Planning and Preparation, this type of scenario keeps running through my mind. No matter how much I game-play it or tabletop-exercise it, the result still is not good. However, after taking some steps that hopefully will mitigate some incidents and prepare us for others, we are in a better place than we were a couple of years ago.

In June of 200?, two local high school principals breathe a sigh of relief as their senior classes graduate and leave school for their new lives in the real world. Both feel good about the kids they graduated, but as always each of them had a student or two with acts or actions that make the hair stand up on the back of their necks. In one of those little quirks of nature that keep popping up in this world, both of them end up attending the same college. At the college, they fall into the same routines they had as high school kids; they are shunned by the in-crowds and left without any support systems at all to help them. Naturally, they meet each other, and after ranting and raving, they begin to plan their revenge against all that bothers them.

The college, like so many others in the country, is located in the suburban sprawl of a major city. Over the years they have developed and maintained a campus police department that is well trained, armed and heavily invested in doing all the right community policing things for their community. They maintain an average shift of three officers and a supervisor. Relationships with the local police are fairly cordial, as the campus works hard at dealing with community issues involving their students and deals rather quickly with students involved in problems near campus. Occasionally the local police are on campus as part of a larger event, but in general everyone tries to keep to their own world and life is good.

The Incident

In April of that year, our two students decide it is time to emulate Columbine, except it is going to be on a college campus. At 1130 hours, one of them enters the campus police station and asks for access to a secure area. A student ID is requested, and he states that he has left it in his room and will go get it and be right back. At this point, he exits the station and heads towards the college union. At approximately 1140 hours, the bomb he left at the station in his backpack detonates, effectively decapitating all emergency communications on campus. At about 1145 hours, he and his compatriot in this rampage begin their killing spree in the college union. By the time it is all over, some two or three hours later, people have died, response to the scene was a disaster, and the fingers are already starting to point.

As can occur in these types of scenarios, it will be obvious that our prevention activities were, to say the least, not very effective. Not really a lot you can do about that--you can be right 99 times and the 100th one will get you. It is not really much of a consolation--it is just the truth. What we can do is to develop some emergency action plans to reduce the problems that always occur at the beginning of these events. Every event of this nature will be marked by confusion, panic, a rush to the scene, and gridlock, either in the command structure or response area.

Getting Prepared

What we, as managers from both sides of the Town-Gown equation, should have been doing is some preparedness-type of planning. Do we have a response plan for incidents like this and others in our neighborhood? While we are all tempted to let each other do our own thing as long as it does not effect our operation, in this case or cases like this it is going to hinder our responses. The need for both sides to reach out to each other and do some planning and vulnerability assessments to determine common issues is obvious. We both have resources that can help each other. This is time to determine what they are, not in the confusion and panic will be prevalent at the time of the incident. Developing some common training goals is necessary. Officers from the multiple agencies that will respond, such as police, fire and EMS, would all benefit by doing some common training in responding to emergencies. If nothing else, they will become familiar with each other and that they will get a feeling for the lay of the land. If an outside agency was to respond to my jurisdiction and be told to go to the cafe for an active shooter, they would have a choice of three cafes and two snack bars, all of them in different buildings and on different floors. If our communication system was down, good luck to those responding. It is also imperative that both sides work on their emergency operation manuals to insure they are up-to-date, and that the links in them are operative. If the manuals are outdated and contacts cannot be made, then the plan becomes an effective doorstop, but not much else. Last, and probably most difficult, is to exercise these plans. It is not easy to do, since it involves some planning in itself to get all the players on board. However, by exercising these plans we are doing a number of things that will improve our ability to respond to these incidents. First, we are getting everyone on the same page as to what is going to happen. Second, we are ensuring that the people who are actually doing the response know what is going on. Last, and probably one of the best things we are doing for ourselves, is finding out what is not going to work. This will allows us to adapt the plans to be more effective and save time and lives.

As sort of a personal rant, here it has always sadly amused me that communication between agencies is so difficult. This is especially true in a possible incident like this, where one of the first thoughts that comes to my mind after reading about the multiple school shootings in the USA is, "Where do you think these kids go to after high school?" It is just a matter of time--tick-tock, tick-tock...