Thursday, February 13, 2014

Incident Command and Media Considerations in School Incidents

By Megan Lundgren

Sheriff talks to media after incident -
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).

Problem Statement
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.

Data Analysis
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 Analysis
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 Retrieved from
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
Illescas, C., Rouse, K.,  & Bunch, J. (2006, September 27). Hostage horror. The Denver Post. Retrieved from
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
Ostrow, J. (2006). Columbine’s lessons not yet etched in TV. The Denver Post. 

Media Decision Making during a School Shooting: A Case Study

By Julie Bowman

The Columbine school shooting was the first to unfold live on television.  Within minutes, news media were interrupting programing to broadcast the news of what was happening.  Unfortunately, at such an early stage of the event, no one really knew for sure what was going on.  The television broadcast news media faces some very tough decisions about what to air.  There are graphic images to sort out, live interviews that may or may not contain the truth, and information that may, perhaps, need to be protected for both victims’ privacy and the ground operations being conducted by public safety officials.  As the events unfolded that day, news departments around the Denver metro area made mistakes, and some would even say they created the rule book for how not to cover such an event.  Media should always use four decision-making criteria when determining what to air.  This criterion includes timeliness in providing information, accuracy of the information provided, it should not interfere with ground operations, and the media should always remember to protect the rights of the victim.  While the status quo is a viable alternative, there are better choices.  News media can broadcast on a short time delay, they can only air information during a crisis that pertains to public safety that the viewer has an immediate need to know, and they can work together with the first responder community to gain a better relationship that helps both the media and emergency officials.  It will take a paradigm shift on the part of the media to accomplish these recommendations, but in the end, the media will receive less criticism for their actions and they will be a help rather than a hindrance in a crisis.  

Description of the Case
The Columbine high school shooting disaster in Littleton, Colorado, is known by most people simply as “Columbine”.    How can anyone forget the clear, sunny spring day in April 1999, when two high school students dressed in black toting weapons wreaked havoc on a suburban Denver school, in the end, killing thirteen as well as themselves (JCSO, 1999)?  It began as a quiet news day by most accounts, but Patti Dennis, the news director at Denver’s KUSA Channel 9, felt something was brewing, although she had no idea what that might be, she told her production staff just that (Shepard, ND ).  Within three hours, the media would be covering what would become one of the biggest news stories in the history of broadcast journalism in the Denver area (Barber, 2009).   

The Issue
School shootings and other mass shootings have become a major topic in our society (Maguire, Weatherby, & Mathers, 2002).  When these events occur, the public turns to the media for information.  As a result, the more violent the crime, the more attention it receives (Maguire et al, 2002).  The television news media has to make tough decisions about what to put on the air as a story unfolds during a live broadcast.  Because of the nature of television news and the sheer volume of cameras at this particular scene, there were graphic images, interviews with juveniles, and the myths that evolved into truths as the day went on.  When the identity of the gunmen was uncovered, a decision had to be made whether or not to air their names. There were live calls coming into the news stations themselves with people wanting to tell their stories from inside the school.  What is the appropriate way to cover a story of this nature when the public is viewing live?  What questions should reporters ask traumatized teens?  Should news anchors conduct on-air interviews with victims hiding inside the school calling on cell phones?  What do you show?  What don’t you show (Shepard, ND)?  

Data Analysis
In part, these problems occurred because the story was unfolding so rapidly.  News media began picking up on radio traffic via scanner as early as 11:20 a.m.  Not long after that, the three major Denver stations began breaking in to local programming to inform the public of the shooting (Barber, 2009).  The news helicopters were filming images of the outside of the school where several victims lay.  News stations had to determine which of these images should make it on television.  With so many people covering the story, it was a race to get the information out first.  One station had film of paramedics checking on two of the victims outside the cafeteria and walking away from them.  Wisely, the station did not air that footage (Shepard,  ND).  About two hours into the event, a student who had been shot in the head while in the library had made his way to the windows.  He was intent on breaking out a window and escaping (JCSO, 1999).  News helicopters saw the student in the window and began filming him.  Many of the communication centers involved in the incident were watching the coverage and relayed information about the student to commanders on the ground.  Those on the ground, with the assistance of an armored vehicle, were able to approach the library and ultimately safely evacuate the subject.  Watching the scene was horrific and the student could easily be identified by anyone who knew him.  While it made for an exciting news scene, imagine the horror his family and friends must have felt if they were watching.  Was this appropriate to air?  At that moment, at least one news station decided it was.  
The NBC affiliate, KUSA Channel 9, received a call from an individual clearly upset and wanting to speak with someone about the event.  He was a student from the school who had made it out and was safe.  Channel 9 put the individual on the air live with the anchors who tried to illicit information from the caller.  The interview quickly changed into the anchors trying to console the individual, finally directing him to go speak with his parents. (Barber, 2009).  While this call was legitimate, KUSA later took two calls live that turned out to be fake.  When asked if she made the right decision about putting these people on the air, News Director Patti Dennis stated, “It was one of those decisions we could have made smarter.  Now, I would have talked to him, debriefed him, taped him and thought about it” (as quoted in Barber, 2009).  
Plenty of myths came from the ongoing news reporting that day and in the months that followed.  Everyone was looking for a different angle on the story, and there were plenty of people willing to provide information – accurate or otherwise.  As Dave Cullen, Author of Columbine writes, “The Trench Coat Mafia was mythologized because it was colorful, memorable, and fit the existing myth of the school shooter as outcast loner.  All of the Columbine myths worked that way.  And they all sprang to life incredibly fast—most of the notorious myths took root before the killers’ bodies were found” (2009, p. 149).  Those who are close to the case, investigators, prosecutors, and victim’s families no longer believe the myths, but the public seems to take them as truth (Cullen, 2009).  Much of the media argues that with the amount of chaos and the number of witnesses at Columbine, it would be impossible to get all the facts straight.  Interestingly, most of the myths that came out of Columbine all had a shred of truth, but the fact that the news media latched on to the myths as they came out caused more and more people to believe the myths.  One example is that early on, only a handful of students had mentioned the Trench Coat Mafia and possibly responsible for the shooting.  Once the news media began reporting their involvement, a rapidly increasing number of kids began to believe the information and believed it to be true because the new had reported it that way (Cullen, 2009).  The rapid unfolding of the story along with the myths that were coming out of the event created an environment in which the Denver television news media had never before found themselves.  Normal fact checking seemed to fly out the window, resulting in incorrect information going out as factual.    
Key Decision Criteria
There are four primary decision making criteria to be analyzed.  These criteria are:
1. Timeliness:  Is the public getting needed information in a timely manner?
2. Accuracy:  Is the information the media is putting out to the public accurate and verified?
3. Non-interfering:  Is the information the media broadcasts interfering in any way with the ability of the public safety officials and other first responders to do their job?
4. Protection of Rights:  Are the actions the media is taking protective of the rights of the victims in the situation?

Alternatives Analysis
The alternatives to be examined in this situation are:
1. Maintain the status quo.  Change nothing about how media reports on breaking stories of this magnitude.  They are doing the best they can with the information they receive and the public has a right to know what is going on.
2. Work on a short time delay.  Rather than airing raw news film and airing cell phone calls live, delay putting out information to the public for a period of thirty seconds or a minute.  During this delay, media will have the opportunity to evaluate potential problematic issues.  While this promotes accuracy, better protects the rights of the victims and is less likely to interfere with public safety operations, timeliness is impacted in a negative manner.
3. Air only the things that the public needs to know for their safety.  While the news media’s focus is not public safety, in this kind of a situation, public safety should be one of their top concerns.  Timeliness is important, but accuracy of information is paramount to the safety of the public.  The general public does not need to know how many people were shot or where inside the building they were shot and this kind of information could compromise the emergency operations.  Walking up and shoving a microphone in the face of a traumatized student for a live sound bite is not protective of that person’s rights.     
4. Through a consortium of news media and public safety officials, create a method that helps the news media perform their job accurately and timely without interfering with emergency personnel.  This procedure should set standards of how and when to conduct interviews with people on or fleeing the scene.  After an event of this nature, these same officials should sit together and evaluate how news coverage was provided and how things could improve.

There is no easy solution to the problem that exists.  “The reporting of school shooting cases on network newscasts reflects the “herd mentality” nature of the media” (Maguire et al, 2002).  In order to provide an environment wherein timely, accurate, and non-interfering news coverage can take place while at the same time protect the rights of those involved, media outlets are facing a total paradigm shift.  This paradigm shift will need to include several alternatives.  One thing is certain, the status quo is not the answer.  A good policy the news media should follow would include working on a short time delay, and as the Channel 9’s News Director indicated, vet, tape and think (Barber, 2009).  It would be in the best interest of the media and public safety officials to sit down together and discuss the ways the media can help and the ways they hinder in these situations.  As events are unfolding, the media should consider working on a delay.  This will resolve the problem of fake calls that media outlets encountered and will prevent graphic footage the public doesn’t need to see from being aired.  It will also provide the media with a chance to cross check and verify information better.  Because a reporter cannot control what an interviewee may say live, the brief delay will allow stations to not only cross check the information they provide, but also they will be able to control what is aired.  This will cut down on the myths that are propagated by the media.  The media should also refrain from interviewing juveniles without their parent’s consent, and they should also refrain from airing names of both victims and perpetrators before officials have formally released that information.      
Action and Implementation Plan
First and foremost, the media and public safety officials need to work together during school shootings and related incidents or disasters.  Open communication between the two is necessary for this to happen, and it should happen before the disaster strikes.  The first step to be taken is for the parties to meet together and create guidelines under which both sides can agree to operate.  Next, the media will need to make policy changes within their organizations and in some cases, train their employees about the changes.  The media should adopt the position they are the conduit of necessary information during the unfolding of the crisis, and wait until the crisis is winding down before airing special interest stories.  It is also necessary for the media to put in place a policy of fully interviewing and debriefing subjects before they air interviews.  This will protect the victims as well as protect the reputation of the media in many cases.  All of this will take buy-in on the part of the media and it won’t be easy.  Perhaps the best way to view the situation from behind the news desk is to think about how you would want information disseminated if it was your child in the school.  

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