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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

Treating Victims

One of the standout successes of the operation, which allowed deputies to directly participate in treating victims' wounds before EMS was cleared to enter the scene, were military-grade trauma kits issued to the field just six months prior.

The package, designed by a SWAT medic and a third-party vendor, contains just five items, including an adhesive "chest seal" to cover sucking chest wounds, and a large roll of combat gauze-cloth impregnated with a hemostatic agent (similar to QuikClot technology) that helps stop hemorrhaging wounds.

"It was able to keep air in the lungs and blood in the body long enough to get to advanced medical treatment," Gwaltney says. "The on-staff emergency department physician ... where all the gunshot victims went attributed at least three of the people surviving due to that early treatment by our deputy sheriffs using those kits."

Handling Witnesses

The investigational aspects of the case proved to be problematic, but workable. Witnesses were quickly identified and gathered together in one place, which happened to be outside a large drug store in the shopping complex itself. It was fairly close to the crime scene, which proved to be difficult for those already traumatized, but the area had become so congested with emergency workers that it was one of the few open spaces still available.

While law enforcement wasn't able to keep everyone separate for independent witness statements, their being so close did function well in one regard: Deputies lined them up side-by-side for quick, preliminary triage interviews, which helped prioritize the investigation.

Additionally, since the feds decided to conduct concurrent investigations, FBI agents were paired up with sheriff's deputies so that both could gather the same statements at the same time.

Flow of Information

Without real-time situational reports and lacking guidance from the field, the communications section had no directions for working with outside agencies who called offering support services. The result: Many of those agencies simply self-deployed, parking in outlying areas and transporting equipment to the scene in an uncoordinated fashion.

"They weren't getting a flow of information from us, positively, out to them, but at that point in the investigation that flow of communication wasn't critical," says Capt. Paul Wilson, who heads the PCSD Information Technology Division. "It wasn't important to us at that point. But it was important to them."

On the other hand, the public information mission worked well. A joint information center was established off-site, which not only kept media from the immediate scene, but also allowed the many agencies involved to distribute their messages in a unified, consistent manner. Press conferences were held at the nearby, 80-acre Westward Look Resort and Spa, providing journalists status reports that helped them work efficiently and effectively.

"We left one PIO on scene as a liaison, but the rest of the function, to include all the other PIOs, were moved to the unified JIC at that offsite location, almost immediately," Gwaltney says. "That's where all the media drew-half a mile away, at a very easily accessible resort. You can't get any better than that."

Room for Improvement

It remains to be seen how the Tucson shooting incident plays out in the courts. From a tactical point of view, Gwaltney says, many things went right that day-thanks to preplanning, working cooperatively, and catching more than a few lucky breaks that day. But changes will also result.

"When something like this happens," he says, "as professionals we want to take a real close look and say, 'This was game day. How did we do?' and not just pat ourselves on the back, but find out how we can get better."

Bryn Bailer is a former newspaper reporter who specializes in public-safety reporting. By night, she is a member of the Tucson Police Department Communications Division.

Related: Improving Communications After the Tucson Shootings

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