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Responding To the Tucson Shooting

When a disgruntled Arizona man shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others at an open constituent meeting, various agencies worked together to effectively respond to and investigate the incident.

July 18, 2011  |  by Bryn Bailer

Photo: Zuma Press.

Last January in Tucson, Ariz., when a mentally disturbed Jared Loughner leveled his Glock 19 at the head of U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and pulled the trigger, it touched off a high-profile mass murder incident that captured worldwide attention. Journalists descended on the city, and more than a dozen government agencies at all levels were pulled into the fray. Even President Barack Obama was moved to visit a community memorial service honoring those killed and gravely injured during the shooting rampage.

The incident—which wounded 19, and took the lives of six, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge—incited a national discussion of, among other issues, gun control, overwhelmed mental-health systems, sales of high-capacity magazines, and citizen heroism.

For policing professionals, the Tucson shooting offers another opportunity: to analyze the local public safety response to learn what worked, what could have been done better, and what takeaway lessons might help other agencies respond to a mass-casualty incident in their own city.

"The entire system came into play that day," says Fire Chief Jeff Piechura, whose Northwest Fire District paramedics were among the first to arrive. "In the first hour, more than 75 fire, law enforcement, and EMS personnel were on scene; after that, it blossomed to well over 200."

The details of the story are straight forward. Loughner, a 22-year-old college student with a history of drug abuse and misogynistic rants, became fixated on Democratic Rep. Giffords, and tracked her to a morning meet-and-greet with constituents outside a Tucson-area Safeway grocery store. He shot her at point-blank range, wheeled around, and fired on a group of people waiting to see the congresswoman.

After emptying 31 rounds into the crowd, Loughner struggled to reload another extended magazine. During the delay, three civilian bystanders tackled and disarmed him, and he was taken into custody by a Pima County Sheriff's Department deputy less than four minutes after the first 911 call was received.

Controlled Chaos

Despite being a high-profile case, there was a definite absence of media Monday-morning quarterbacking or second-guessing the public safety response, as happened after the shootings at Columbine High School.

"Things that go well don't make news," explains Capt. Byron Gwaltney, a veteran SWAT officer who joined the sheriff's department in 1987, and served as overall incident commander. PCSD fields approximately 530 sworn officers, who cover more than 9,000 square miles in southern Arizona, with a service population of about 400,000.

The post-event picture that does emerge—the one that didn't interest the media—is one of tightly controlled chaos: a potential rat's nest of multiple responders from a variety of agencies held securely together by a solid command structure and a public safety community well practiced at networking, training, and collaborating at emergency scenes.

"The Tucson tragedy was a crisis that no one could have expected," says Laurence Barton, a scholar and expert in corporate crisis management and risk assessment who teaches the topics to law officers at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. "No matter how well you plan, the one that may come back to bite you is the one you didn't anticipate. But in Tucson, much was done properly, and people rose to the occasion."

Preplanning was key, says Ray Sayre, lead instructor for the Frontline Responder Training Project program based at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. As a Tucson firefighter, Sayre helped implement the city's Metropolitan Medical Response System, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant program designed to integrate a community's ability to respond to a mass casualty event, by bringing police, fire, hospitals, public utilities, school districts, and the like together for training and real-time disaster drills.

"Something that's happened in Tucson, that maybe hasn't happened in other cities, is they've spent a lot of time building relationships between organizations," he says. "You go to other places, and law enforcement doesn't even talk with fire, there's such a large disconnect."

The cooperation on Jan. 8 was such that paramedics were allowed on scene 13 minutes after the suspect was taken into custody. Eleven minutes after that, the first ambulance left en route to a hospital.

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