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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

Of all shooting victims transported that day, all but four arrived within the crucial "golden hour." Lives were saved. The killer was captured, and survives to face justice for his crimes.

Gathering Around the Trunk

One reason that the response went so smoothly was that the incident was not a prolonged one. Partially due to citizen involvement, it progressed quickly from a tactical scene, to a mass-casualty medical event, to a very large homicide investigation. But there were significant challenges as well as obvious successes.

The first incident command post at the Safeway grocery store shooting was on the trunk of a sheriff's patrol car—literally—and using a dry-erase marker to sketch out a diagram of the scene. Other areas of the trunk were used to list personnel on scene and their duty assignments, contact numbers, and other pertinent information.

"When other agencies come to brief, rather than standing around a notebook trying to decipher notes, and everyone in that group trying to capture their own piece of information, you can gather 10 people around the trunk of a police car very efficiently," Gwaltney says. "Everyone can see. Nothing blows away. If the car has to move, (the information) stays with it, and doesn't get lost."

Working Together

A particular challenge at the event was that the various participants—four fire departments, numerous law enforcement agencies, EMS providers, emergency managers, as well as ground- and air-ambulance transport services—operate on different radio frequencies, and in some cases, entirely different radio systems (See "The Tucson Shooting and Interoperable Communications"). Fortunately, regular training drills enabled commanders from different agencies to identify each other quickly. This turned out to be an invaluable tool for easily gathering and sharing information-either person-to-person, or via cell phone.

Ultimately, the unified command post-which would usually have been located in an underground emergency operations center in downtown Tucson-was established in an unconventional location: a free-standing gourmet sandwich shop located on one corner of the shopping center. The 4,500-square-foot restaurant provided the necessary amenities, including Internet access, lots of tables, electrical outlets for TVs, printers, and the like.

Finding Room

Although the shopping center parking lot was a large one, the number of first responders there led to considerable congestion at the site. Shooting victims dropped where they stood in line, forming a bloody trail of bodies 20 to 30 feet long.

Fortunately, the crime scene was quickly cordoned off in three concentric circles, about 100 feet out in all directions, that provided increasing levels of separation and added protection.

However, when the department's mobile command center vehicle rolled up, it was parked too close to the crime scene. By the time a better location was identified, other emergency vehicles had parked and boxed it in, so it couldn't be moved.

On the other hand, fire department vehicles were staged outside the scene in an orderly fashion-stacked up on each other in a line along the road, enabling other vehicles to pass by easily. As luck would have it, Northwest Fire's lead paramedic that day also happened to be a medic with the regional SWAT team, and based on that training, he was able to brief his coworkers on tactical issues well ahead of time.

"It was one of those trust pieces, because we work together every day," Piechura says. "(We know) law enforcement wants to protect the scene for investigation, so what we have to do, as EMS folks, is to get in there, take care of the patients, minimize impact to physical evidence, and withdraw as carefully as possible without compromising the scene."

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