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.
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.[PAGEBREAK]
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."
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.
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."[PAGEBREAK]
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."
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