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Incident Commanders Recall Tucson Shooting

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning. People were out and about in their local shopping center doing chores, grabbing a snack and shopping.

But, that typical day in Tucson last January turned tragic when shots rang out.

"In 18 seconds, lives changed forever. In 18 seconds, the community changed forever," said Northwest Fire District Chief Stuart Rodeffer.

That's how long it took for suspect Jerry Lee Loughner to shoot 19 people, killing six outside a Safeway.

Rodeffer and Pima County Sheriff's Capt. Byron Gwaltney shared their experiences as incident commanders at the Tucson shooting rampage with responders during an EMS conference in Maryland this past weekend.

The first 911 caller told the dispatcher that many people had been shot including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The chaos is heard in the background.

"We had no idea the Congresswoman was there that morning. She didn't tell us. She didn't have to. She was there to talk to her constituents," Gwaltney said adding that many showed up to have their pictures taken with her.

When the dispatcher alerted the first officers to the shooting at the Safeway, she also added that Giffords was among those wounded. Including that information, Gwaltney said, triggered an immediate media response. News helicopters were going airborne.

Names are usually not broadcast.

While officers were en route, dispatchers kept them updated about the unfolding scene. Callers reported the lone shooter had been tackled by by-standers, and his gun taken away.

Officers from nearby jurisdictions as well as off-duty cops responded to assist.

Multiple ALS crews also were dispatched, and advised to stage as the scene was far from secure.

A retired military officer who had suffered a glancing gunshot wound to the head had hit Loughner over the head with a chair and grabbed his gun, while a woman in her 60s struggled and got the magazine.

Gwaltney praised the people for taking action. Had they not, there no doubt would have been many more victims.

"Think about it," Gwaltney said. "We were told one shooter in a hoodie. We find an older guy holding a gun." But, he said officers quickly sorted things out.

Loughner was quickly cuffed, and placed in a cruiser.

Meanwhile, ALS crews are anxiously waiting in fire trucks and ambulances for police to give the word that the scene was secure, Rodeffer said.

"When we rolled up, something happened that I never seen. We were barely stopped, and people were opening the compartment doors, grabbing equipment. They were grabbing us, yelling at us to hurry up. People were dying."

Rodeffer's voice escalated: "There was blood everywhere. We were slipping in blood. People were slipping in blood which was just running everywhere. People were covered in blood."

He saw officers doing CPR on a little girl. "They were trying so hard … But, it was clear to me she was dead before she hit the ground."

Although he knew the outcome wasn't going to be good, Rodeffer made the decision to have her immediately transported.

"I had to get her out of there. I couldn't leave her there. I couldn't."

At the hospital, her family had the opportunity to say goodbye, he said as he kept his emotions in check.

The second person transported by ambulance was Giffords, who had been shot in the head.

For the first six minutes, officers, a nurse and a doctor were the ones treating the injured. Gwaltney said officers put their training and items in their unusual aid kits to use.

Combat dressings were used, gauze was stuffed into gunshot holes and chest seals were applied.

Rodeffer said ER personnel were astounded when their patients arrived with a variety of these combat materials, many of which EMS personnel don't or can't use.

"Stuffing those holes and their treatment was credited with saving at least three if not four lives," the paramedic said.

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.