Analysis of Aurora theater shooting audio
On the morning of Friday, July 20th, 2012, just after midnight in Aurora, Colorado, our country witnessed one of the worst mass shootings in our history. As with any such horrific event, there are a few things that we in public safety must strive to do.
We must recognize and support the grieving of the survivors as they mourn the loss of the victims.
We must recognize and honor any and all heroic acts that occurred during the incident and in response to it.
We must perform the proper After Action Reviews (AARs) to assess our own performance and find ways, if any, to improve it.
The following commentary is in no way a criticism of any of the responding units to the event from any discipline of public safety. It is the opinion of the editorial staff here at Officer.com, and of our columnists who have contributed to this piece, that the men and women who responded to the incident did an admirable job.
This commentary is meant purely to share some information with our brothers and sisters in public safety that we might better our own future response should we find ourselves in similar situations.
BE ADVISED / CAUTION: This recording is over 24 minutes long. Parts of the recording linked below are quite graphic in nature to include the clear audio of some of the victims suffering and descriptions of their wounds.
The dispatcher deserves a medal. Throughout the incident she remains calm and doesn't get flustered as the officers on the scene have to change their plans, evolve their response, join and then separate communications channels, etc. A calm dispatcher means efficiency and helps to keep the officers (and others) responding calm as well.
Less than one minute from the original dispatch they recognize the need for lots of manpower. Lincoln-25 calls for "all available cars." The dispatcher had just reported at least one person shot but "hundreds of people running around." We need to consider this and think about our own manpower numbers. If your agency had to respond to a movie theater, quite often located in malls, does any given shift have the manpower to do so? If not, do you have the necessary mutual aid agreements in place to call on the support of bordering/nearby agencies?
At about the 1:30 there are five units that have called "on scene" and the dispatcher decides to patch the channels to keep communications clear. It should be noted that five units on scene in under a minute-and-a-half is impressive but probably unique to an urban area. What if the scene had been more rural?
At the 1:49 mark the dispatcher advises someone is still shooting inside "per an employee." Something we all need to be aware of is the unavoidable time delay in such reporting. The dispatcher cannot (typically) be on the phone taking emergency calls AND dispatching on the radio, so the operator on the phone has to take the info, clarify it, write it and then pass it to the dispatcher who then communicates it to the troops on the street. That 10 or 15 second delay can see a lot of change on the scene. If what you hear on the radio doesn't precisely match what you see in front of you, unless it presents an immediate officer survival or response concern, don't argue with the dispatcher about it. The dispatcher never intentionally gives us bad information, but the information may be "too late" by virtue of unavoidable delay.
Just past the two minute mark Lincoln-25 calls for officers at the back of the theater obviously thinking about a perimeter and containment. A different officer (514) makes the first call for an ambulance.
Just under the three minute mark Theater 9 is identified as the immediate scene of the shooting. All of the officers have responded quickly and efficiently but we cannot alter the laws of physics. We have to get their safely. Undoubtedly someone somewhere will complain about it having taken the officers "so long" to respond when realistically there was no way to respond any faster. Agency administrators/leadership should anticipate and be prepared to address those complaints.
Just past the three minute mark the dispatcher again reports that the calls are coming in for the perpetrator "still shooting." If that was the case, is it possible that the officers on scene could be within the theater complex and NOT be hearing the shots? Consider the noise of a panicked crowd and the physical structure of the theaters themselves. It IS possible to be close but not hear what's going on.
Just past the three minutes mark "216" calls out to get the dispatcher's attention and his voice obviously sounds excited/stressed. Before he can send his communications traffic another unit calls for an ambulance for another victim. Such confusion in communications is unavoidable and we should make sure our officers are aware of it. In such situations, pandemonium will rule the day, but WE must roll with it, improvise, adapt and overcome.
At the 3:45 mark you can hear the alarms from inside the complex in the background of the officer's communication and it's the first mention of "gas" being sprayed or deployed inside the theater (communicated by "316").
At about the 4:20 mark you can hear "316" calling for more officers inside theater 9 immediately followed by an officer detailing the perimeter coverage for the back and south sides. Think about that and recognize that your response to any given scene will be as fast, or faster than, the deployment of your perimeter. This is unavoidable. We cannot delay immediate response to the scene to set up the perimeter. We cannot ignore the need for perimeter to send everyone to the immediate scene. On scene commanders/responding officers have to balance the responding manpower as best they can under the given circumstances. This will always be critiqued after the fact but no one should criticize the decisions made under such conditions on the scene.
At the 4:30 mark an officer calls out with "people running out of the theater that are shot." As much as we train to make entry and neutralize an active shooter, how many training programs focus on the mass exodus of the injured. We should have protocols in place to delineate rally points, triage areas and procedures, and coordinated Emergency Medical Services placement. Additionally, given the amount of time we're going to spend on the scene after the immediate threat has been neutralized, it would be beneficial for more (if not all) officers to receive up-graded first-aid training. Basic trauma care should be the minimum; EMT-B if time and budgets permit.
At the 4:47 mark the first call goes out asking if their are gas masks available. One Chief of Police who heard this recording paid particular attention to this request. His agency does have gas masks and they are typically kept in the armory for distribution during civil unrest events. As was demonstrated in THIS event, if the gas masks are not immediately available to the officers, you might as well not have them at all. But, that means training and maintenance for those gas masks as well.
At about the 5:05 mark, sounding relatively calm, Lincoln-25 calls out the shooter's location as Theater 9, implying that Lincoln-25 isn't IN Theater 9 yet, and he identifies the smell as "OC" (pepper spray - a smell we should all be familiar with). Consider that implication: The OC "bomb" that was set off inside Theater 9 is affecting response and conditions outside Theater 9. The scene very obviously just got a whole lot bigger than the shootings occurring inside a single theater.
At about the 5:40 mark, Cruiser 26 asks about a staging area for Emergency Medical Services. He sounds calm, as if he asking a common every day question.
Just past the six minute mark Lincoln-25 delineates the West Parking Lot as the staging area for Rescue/EMS and requests "at least three or four ambulances." He still sounds relatively calm and is obviously assessing the situation as it develops. Consider how many ambulances your area has available and how fast they can get to any given area how fast. At Virginia Tech there were less than six ambulances available.
At the 6:20 mark a marked cruiser is requested to the back of the theater for a "suspect in a gas mask."
At the 6:50 mark, as units are calling out various locations of victims and their injuries, one officer calls to "hold the air" so that clarification can be made with the units to the rear of the theater with the suspect.
At the 7:15 mark the call is made for all cars coming in to set up a perimeter around the entire mall. Consider the reality of that for a moment. Do you have or can you get enough cars to set up a perimeter around a whole mall? If so, what is there purpose? Are they observing for more victims and/or shooters? Or do they think they're supposed to not let anyone leave the scene?
At the 7:30 mark Cruiser-26 calls for all victims to be brought to the north end of the theater. Earlier, Lincoln-25 had designated the West parking lot as the staging area for Rescue/EMS. Such confusion is unavoidable in such situations and rather than becoming frustrated, officers have to be flexible and adapt.
At the 8:15 mark a call is made for an ambulance at a street intersection where a victim is out "with the road crew." In such emergencies, as victims are streaming out of the area of the immediate threat, they will go to the closest place they can see that might even remotely represent help. A road crew with flashing yellow lights, radios, etc. might well find themselves approached and asked for assistance. This also indicates how far outside that mall perimeter victims can get and how quickly.
At the 8:50 mark Lincoln-25 calls for as many ambulances as they can get to stage in the Dillard's lot. This is probably better than asking for a staging area in the "west parking lot," or "south parking area." Responding units who know the area will immediately know where the Dillard's lot is even if they don't know what direction it is from the theater.
At the 9:05 mark Lincoln-25 further designates Dillard's Lot as the rally point for responding fire trucks, indicating that the police will start directing fire personnel in to triage victims.
At the 9:20 mark, "302" calls out transporting one victim to the hospital in his patrol vehicle. If your agency doesn't have any policy regarding this, consider at least covering such actions in training. Advisable? Not? Avoidable? Not? Be careful about making absolute policy that restricts officers from taking what might prove to be life-saving actions.
At the 9:27 mark an obviously excited/stressed (and understandably so) officer calls out with "seven down" in theater 9. The dispatcher replies with an acknowledgement of his traffic and reassures him that she will notify "Fire" (EMS). Again, her calm and professionalism need to be noted and commended.
At the 9:50 mark Lincoln-25 calls for Denver cars, voicing the need for more manpower.
At the 10:00 mark a unit calls out with information that "one of the shooters might be wearing a white and blue plaid shirt." Misinformation is inevitable from victims/witnesses and we need to keep that in mind as much as we can in the heat of the moment.
At the 10:40 mark Lincoln-25 calls for the separation of Channels 2 and 3, specifying that Channel 2 will be inside, Channel 3 will be outside. This represents another evolution in the response.
At the 11:00 mark Lincoln-41 calls for mutual aid assistance asking for Arapahoe County cars to help with perimeter around the scene.
At the 11:45 mark we hear that the suspect claims to have worked alone but witnesses are offering conflicting information. Officers on scene have to use their best judgment but always remember the "+1" rule: there is always one more bad guy than what you've secured until you prove otherwise.
At the 12:00 mark Cruiser-11 calls the scene secure and announces that they are transporting bodies out of the back of the theater, with "three to eleven hit."
Between the 12:15 and 13:00 marks Lincoln-25 is trying to find out where all the EMS personnel are. Further communication is given as to where they are supposed to be. This is the inevitable result of cross-communication that occurred earlier.
At the 13:05 mark Cruiser-10 calls out with "one victim eviscerated."
At the 13:25 mark a unit announces that they are going to evacuate all they can out of Theater 9 out the east side. Consider this and the pandemonium the units inside the theater itself and the theater complex are dealing with. Thirteen minutes after first report of the attack, citizens are still inside the Theater, some not wanting to leave downed victims, ALL of them likely suffering the effects of the OC gas that the attacker deployed.
At the 13:35 mark a unit calls for ambulances to the back of the theater in the "old Sports Authority lot." Recognize how much communication has occurred on where EMS personnel are supposed to be rallying and the frustration that can rise not only in those EMS folks who are being told to go different places but also in the on-scene personnel who have previously delineated rally points for them and a process for evacuating mobile victims. Again, this is unavoidable as officers on scene have to pay attention to what they are doing and will often miss what's coming across the radio.
At the 14:20 mark to Victor units report on scene and ask where they're needed. A unit inside Theater 9 is asking for the movie to be shut off. We might assume that theater personnel would already have done so but we can't take anything for granted.
At the 14:30 mark Lincoln-25 announces the discovery of a rifle magazine inside the theater and alerts all officers to the possibility of an "assault rifle" involved. Note that the officers on scene still don't know that they are dealing with a single shooter and such officer survival information is imperative to share.
At the 14:50 mark Metro-10 requests permission from Lincoln-25 to start transporting victims via patrol vehicles due to a lack of on scene ambulances / medical personnel. Lincoln-25, without any hesitation, gives him permission and a directive: "Yes, load 'em up in cars and get 'em out of here."
At the 15:10 mark a call for an ambulance crew to respond to the inside of Theater 9 is made for a victim who is deemed not movable. Consider that: have your public safety disciplines trained together? Are there protocols in place to escort EMS personnel into an area that has not be confirmed as clear yet?
At the 15:25 mark the dispatcher has asked to know what hospital a victim is being taken to so she can alert the hospital. Lincoln-25 responds directing her to simply alert all local hospitals to be ready. Given that there were 12 killed and 58 more wounded, this is an excellent move on his part. Every hospital emergency room I'm familiar with would be overwhelmed by such a casualty count.
Just prior to the 16 minute mark the radio traffic shows that the officers on scene are still trying to get a perimeter secured. Due to the simple vastness of the scene (the theater complex) this undoubtedly proved to be no easy task and took lots of manpower.
At the 16:10 mark a second call goes out for an EMS crew inside Theater 9 and a directive to get all mobile victims out to the EMS providers.
At the 16:45 mark a call goes out for two officers to be stationed at every exit of the theaters both to assist victims and to be alert for anyone who might be armed.
At the 17:25 mark an officer calls out information about the rifle used, specifying it as a 5.56mm weapon. His voice sounds so stressed that the dispatcher asks him if he needs rescue (EMS) as well. He responds, "No," but his voice does sound stressed and the dispatcher's concern makes sense.
At the 17:45 mark Cruiser-49 calls out that he's finding/contacting witnesses who saw the whole event and he encourages officers on scene to continue to ask exiting movie viewers what they saw. It is an unavoidable characteristic of performance that responding personnel will focus on what they have the most experience in. Investigators might focus on witnesses and holding them to get statements. Tactical officers might focus more on multiple perimeters, entry, clearance, etc. Officers with minimal experience may simply feel awash in an ocean of circumstance, finding themselves simply trying to do whatever comes to mind in compliance with whatever training they can recall.
At the 18:00 mark there is radio traffic delineating what exit from the theater complex is clear. In previous active shooter events we've seen circumstances unfold where responding police and EMS units so blocked roadways with their vehicles that they couldn't get away from the scene to get victims to a hospital. This radio traffic delineates a clear exit from the scene and out to get to a local hospital.
At the 18:20 mark a question is asked about whether or not any officers have been "upstairs" in the theater yet. The response comes back that officers are "working on it now." Keep that in mind: almost 20 minutes into this event and the officers on scene are still not sure that the scene is clear of further threat.
At the 18:50 mark Lincoln-25 reminds all officers on scenes that there are open spaces behind the theater screens that have to be checked. The obvious concern is that more shooters could be behind those screens ready to shoot into the theaters at responding officers or not-yet-evacuated civilians.
At the 19:20 mark a unit calls out transporting two victims to a hospital. More calls go out for either an ambulance OR a patrol car to the back of theater 9. The dispatcher reports that fire/EMS personnel are now on their way into Theater 9. (NOTE: That request was made at the 15:10 mark)
At the 19:45 mark Lincoln-41 calls for EMS personnel to respond to the back exit of the theater and he clearly states that they have officers there, indicating that the area is secure and safe. We cannot ask our fire/EMS personnel to come into areas that are not secure. Lincoln-41 understands that and fashions this communication accordingly.
At the 20:15 mark a unit calls out with "five possible employees" that are being searched. The employees might be offended and they are certainly scared. We must be professional and thorough. I personally was on the perimeter of a robbery scene where the perpetrators escaped dressed in employee uniforms. We cannot take anything for granted.
At the 20:20 mark Denver communications comes on the air to advise Aurora communications that the responding Denver cars will be switching over to the Aurora channel.
At the 20:57 mark the dispatcher tries to raise Metro-16 advising that she received his "emergency key." No response is heard from Metro-16 as the radio traffic is taken over about additional EMS services responding and a warning to officers on foot to watch out for patrol cars leaving the scene priority taking victims to the hospital. Further direction is given to switch which hospital officers take victims to.
At the 22:00 mark a host of Denver cars call out on the channel. They do so quickly. The dispatcher confirms all of them as if this is just another day in the life. She still sounds totally calm.
At the 22:45 mark Denver-310 requests to know the location of the Command Post. There has been no previous radio traffic about a command post. The dispatcher has either been advised previously by other means or she selects one herself, but she directs the responding Denver cars to a specific command post location and tells them where it is both in relation to the theater and to the interstate highway.
At the 23:20 mark it's reported that there are "still a lot of people shot on the east side" of the theater. More cars are reported "rolling in now."
At the 24:00 mark a call is made to contain everyone in the parking lots and hold them. Further information is provided that Aurora units are still clearing inside the theater to insure it's safe/clear.
The audio ends at 24:42 right after a Tac unit calls out a possible suspect description of a man seen running from the vicinity by construction workers. Undoubtedly this dispatch recording will be reviewed, dissected, analyzed and criticized ad nauseum. Let us remember that none of us should be "Monday morning quarterback." We weren't there. There are lessons to be learned by all of us from the hard experience lived by those responding men and women.
The perpetrator, now identified as James Holmes, planned and prepared even more carefully than Seung Hui Cho did at Virginia Tech. James Holmes shot more people although he killed less. His total casualty count was higher. He included the use of OC 'gas' and that alone is something we'll now need to be prepared for from every future mass shooter.
We at officer.com offer our prayers, sympathies and condolences to all of the victims and their families.