By Megan Lundgren
|Sheriff talks to media after incident - DenverPost.com|
Emergency situations happen when they are least expected. Being prepared for the incidents that could occur is essential to a rapid and effective response. In 2006, a man entered a high school in Colorado and held six female student hostage. While only one student was killed, the loss was significant to the community. The response to the incident was well orchestrated overall but initial set up was less than desirable. The incident command system (ICS) should be established rapidly at every incident so that incidents may be responded to more smoothly. Training should be done frequently among local agencies as well as with schools and agencies from neighboring jurisdictions. A public information officer should be assigned to work with the media at incidents to ensure dissemination of correct information. The news media should set up ways to verify “facts” received from anywhere other than the public information officer. An information dissemination location should be assigned for media use in every incident to create more scene control and to ensure better information dissemination.
Incident Command and Media Considerations in School Incidents
The news media have the goal of being the first to “break” a big story. The news media will often take whatever actions necessary to reach their goal. In natural and man-made disasters, reporters are always there to let the public know what is going on at the scene and they may even release information that may not be completely true. A brief internet search of any disaster will reveal differences and discrepancies in reports from different media outlets. This paper will cover a high school shooting/hostage situation that occurred in Colorado in 2006 and what lessons can be learned from the response and the media coverage.
Description of the Case
On September 27, 2006, a man entered Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado wearing a hoodie and carrying a backpack. He found his way to room 206 on the second floor where he entered, placed his backpack on the table, pulled out a handgun, and told the boys and the teacher to leave the room. The man fired one shot as warning and the teacher and all but six female students left the room. Four of the female students were released as the hours went by. At approximately 1:30 PM (two hours after the teacher left the room), communication with the man and the two students ceased with the warning that something was going to happen at 4 PM. Another nerve-wracking two hours passed with no communication from the inside, but with reports of sexual assault from some of the girls. At approximately 3:30 PM, a SWAT team entered the room to rescue the two remaining girls. One girl escaped to safety while the other was shot by the man, who then turned the gun on himself. The man was pronounced dead on scene and the girl was taken by helicopter to a Denver hospital where she was pronounced dead (Illescas, Rouse, & Bunch, 2006; Associated Press, 2006).
According to the Platte Canyon High School Shooting After Action Report (Hodges, 2006), several problems arose during the response to this incident which are important to note: 1) The incident command was not set up as efficiently as it should have been, adding to the confusion. The specific problem was the lack of coordination at the beginning of the response among emergency personnel due to incident command not being set up immediately. 2) The public relations division of the incident command was not set up in a timely manner, causing confusion among media personnel. Many news stations reported the incident, some talking to emergency responders, others talking to students and parents. 3) The reports that were released did not have all of the information or they contained incorrect information, but they released the stories anyway, causing undue stress to parents and others involved.
In this case, the most urgent issue was that of incident command being set up immediately to ensure a coordinated and timely response to the incident. This could arguably be the most important problem that occurred as well as it, in some ways, affected the other problems that occurred. However, the importance of having a flow of correct information is unquestionably essential in all disaster situations, whether natural or man-made.
Incident command was not set up immediately due to the fact that “an emphasis on incident command was not typically a part of Active Shooter training” (Hodges, 2006, p. 10). As emergency response personnel arrived, there was unclear direction as to what they needed to be doing. The incident command was not set up until the situation changed to that of a hostage situation (Hodges, 2006).
The lack of incident command had an impact on the lack of correct information being disseminated to the media. According to the After Action Report (Hodges, 2006, p.14), “Park County did not have a PIO [public information officer] initially assigned to the incident. This delay caused media agencies to report incorrect information. Students inside the school gave the media information, which was often false and misleading.” Due to the misleading information given to the media from the students and the lack of official word from incident command, the incorrect information was thus reported by the media. In turn, this caused much undue stress and worry on the parents and family members of all involved.
Key Decision Criteria
The main outcome that needs to be achieved in future incidents is that of the rapid establishment of the incident command post, with all positions being filled. As multiple agencies train together before a disaster strikes, the better they will be able to function under the stress of an incident. Bigley and Roberts (2001, p. 1297) suggest, “to the extent an organization has the capacity to implement preplanned organizational solutions rapidly enough to meet the more predictable aspects of an evolving incident, potential reaction speed is increased, depletion of cognitive and other resources is reduced, and the probability of organizational dysfunction is diminished.”
Part of the incident command system is to have a public information officer assigned to inform the media and the public of what is happening at the scene. Establishing this position swiftly and setting up specific times for updates to the media will increase the dissemination of correct information to all involved. The news media must also be patient while receiving information, evaluate the information received and the sources of the information, to ensure correct information dissemination and reduce “misinformation and backtracking” (Ostrow, 2006).
Alternatives are possible ideas that can be implemented to correct the problems found in the case. Some alternatives are: increase multi-agency and multi-jurisdictions training opportunities; create a school crisis team; conduct training between the school crisis team and the community emergency services agencies, or in other words, integrate the school crisis team into the incident command system with the agencies (Nickerson, Brock, & Reeves, 2006); assign a specific place as the location where information about disasters or crises will be disseminated; set up metal detectors at the doors of the high school; require students to wear identification badges; review the ethical guidelines of the local media organizations; train the media on what facts should be reported in an emergency situation; create guidelines for the media to verify “facts” of the incident; and establish a hotline where individuals may call to get information on the progress of an incident. While not all of these alternatives will have an impact on the key decision criteria, certain recommendations will be given.
The first objective that needs to be met is the rapid implementation of the incident command system. To accomplish this, all incidents (great or small) should be handled using this system; as practice and habit can create better response on bigger or more stressful incidents. Along with that, all schools should create a school crisis team and those teams should regularly train with local emergency personnel as well as with those from neighboring jurisdictions.
Second, a public information officer should be established to cover every incident. If responding to a small scale incident, this position should be filled, but it may not be needed. By having the habit of always having someone in this position, when a large incident occurs, this position will be filled and thus correct information can be communicated to the media through established routes during an incident.
The emergency services agencies should work with the media to establish guidelines of what information will be disseminated to them, when it should be available and assign a specific area where the dissemination will occur. Guidelines should be established to verify any information received from sources other than the public information officer or emergency organizations. The media should be content with the information disseminated through these means during an incident. Interviews may be conducted once the incident is complete to gain a broader sense of what happened.
Action and Implementation Plan
The plan to accomplish these recommendations may be as follows: School crisis teams will be established within a year and will follow guidelines from the state emergency managers in conjunction with local emergency managers. Practice drills for different scenarios are to be conducted every three months within the local agencies to ensure smooth operation at incidents. Practice drills are to be conducted every 6 months with emergency agencies from surrounding jurisdictions and with the school crisis teams. All incidents should be responded to using the ICS, effective immediately.
News media outlets should establish a working relationship with emergency services agencies and respect their decisions of how information will be disseminated. Workshops will be conducted once a year to review public information policies between the media and the public information officer. A standard information dissemination location is to be established within 3 months and should be used for every incident necessary thereafter. Questions should be referred to the local and state emergency managers on any policies that have been set forth.
Associated Press. (2006). Details from Colo. School shooting emerge. Crime & courts on NBCNEWS.com. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/15041037/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/details-colo-school-shooting-emerge/#.UuQVNBDn_IU
Bigley, G. A., & Roberts, K. H. (2001). The incident command system: High-reliability organizing for complex and volatile task environments. Academy of Management Journal, 44(6), 1281-1299. doi: 10.2307/3069401
Hodges, L. R. (2006). Platte canyon high school shooting after action report. Retrieved from https://www.llis.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/platte.pdf
Illescas, C., Rouse, K., & Bunch, J. (2006, September 27). Hostage horror. The Denver Post. Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/ci_4404879
Nickerson, A. B., Brock, S. E., & Reeves, M.A. (2006) School crisis teams within an incident command system. California School Psychologist, 11, 1163-72. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ902519.pdf
Ostrow, J. (2006). Columbine’s lessons not yet etched in TV. The Denver Post.