Incident Commanders Recall Tucson Shooting

Northwest Fire District Battalion Chief Stuart Rodeffer and Pima County Sheriff's Capt. Byron Gwaltney shared their experiences as incident commanders during a conference in Maryland this past weekend.


Obviously, this was not a typical scene. There was no time to lay out a tarp, and establish a proper triage area. Triage tags came out of a pouch with strings entangled in a ball. "I grabbed a clipboard from a deputy," Rodeffer said, adding that he picked a medic with a photographic memory to handle triage. "You have to know your folks. You have to improvise. We did what we had to do."

While medics were treating the victims, officers were trying to sort it all out. Gwaltney said he told deputies to corral the witnesses.

Unlike during most investigations, it was impossible to keep them separated. "I had deputies get names, and most importantly ask if they saw more than one shooter."

While that was going on, officers also were watching video tapes from inside the store. Loughner, they would later learn, arrived by cab. With no cash to pay the driver, the two went into the store.

Gwaltney said Loughner bought earplugs and gum to get the cash for the taxi driver. As they left the store together, the suspect can be seen putting in his earplugs.

The incident commander said they didn't know if the cab driver was actually involved.

Rodeffer said when he was quietly notified that there may be a second shooter, he made an instant decision -- he kept it to himself.

"I looked around. Should I have told the troops? I made the decision."

Within an hour, all 19 victims were in a hospital ER.

At the local level 1 trauma center, personnel were going about their Saturday morning. The televisions in the lounges weren't on. Rodeffer said their first inkling of an incident was when a reporter called and asked if Giffords had died.

Shootings with multiple victims and crashes with many patients aren't that uncommon in the Tucson area, they said.

"We also can't say enough about our dispatchers," Rodeffer said, adding that they played a vital role in the incident.

Rodeffer encouraged the providers to give the 911 center a call after an incident to say thanks, and to let them know how things went. Too often, he said, they don't know the outcome.

Gwaltney spoke of the importance of knowing and trusting the people you'll be working with at an incident. He said those relationships paid off in a big way on Jan. 8, 2011.

Likewise, Rodeffer said officers often do their paperwork in their stations. "They should be stopping by and getting to know you…Knowing you, trusting you are what it's all about."

That teamwork was evident this past weekend as the two shared the stage for the first time together.

While the local personnel worked well together, the FBI agents proved to be challenging at best, the battalion chief admitted.

When they held the ALS bags and equipment "hostage" for nearly 14 hours, frustrations mounted. Rodeffer said while he understood they had an investigation to do, he wanted his crews and rigs back in service.

The incident and need for a command post wasn't over when officers and EMS personnel left the shopping center parking lot. There were six funerals to plan for as well as a presidential visit.

Also, commanders had to make sure that someone was taking care of their own. CISM experts were instrumental as providers dealt with their feelings after witnessing the bloodshed.

Gwaltney said there are many things to learn from that tragic day in Tucson. "You can drill and practice, but when it's game day, you absolutely have to know your players"

Likewise, Rodeffer said being able to improvise saved lives that day.

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