by Ron Carlee
The above headline is from 2013. As people across the United States awoke on October 2, 2017, they learned it has happened again. This time in Clark County, Nevada, and the world-famous Las Vegas Strip. The number of dead and wounded is not yet confirmed. The latest reports as I write this on October 2 are over 58 dead and over 500 wounded.
In 2012, Norcross, Oakland, Seattle, Aurora, Oak Creek, Minneapolis, and Newtown—seven U.S. cities from coast to coast, all experienced mass shootings in 2012: 72 dead, 70 injured, and many others emotionally scarred for life. Since 2012, we have had five mass shootings in 2013, four in 2014, seven in 2015, six in 2016, and, thus far, seven in 2017. The count before the Vegas shooting were 187 dead and 173 injured. The deadliest events were at the Orlando nightclub in 2016 (49 dead and 53 injured) and at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard in 2013 (12 dead, 8 injured), and at a public health department holiday party in San Bernardino in 2015 (14 dead, 12 injured).
What I wrote almost five years ago remains starkly true today: “The magnitude of gun violence in the United States is undeniable. As with all social phenomena, the extent of the problem and the dominant public attitudes vary dramatically from one community to another. The stark reality is that mass gun deaths can occur in any community on any day. The challenge for managers is to be prepared.”
The following are key points from the 2013 article:
City managers who have experienced mass shootings in their communities have accumulated valuable experiences that can help other managers prepare for similar emergencies. Based on interviews and reports from these communities, here are 10 critical issues that have emerged.
- Stay involved. Managers walk a line between disengagement and micromanagement, but at all stages—emergency preparedness, response, and recovery—the chief executive needs to be visible and engaged. Have you had a conversation with your leadership team and elected officials on how your city would handle a mass-shooting event?
- Plan and train. The Columbine High School murders in 1999 changed everything, showing how lessons can be learned and put into place. Active shooter plans are now commonplace and direct first responders to encounter and neutralize the shooter as the immediate priority. Most police departments now plan and train based on this model. Mass events, however, require responses across all of the assets of a local government. Planning, training, and testing cannot be limited to public safety. Does your city have mass shooter training for all employees? Do your schools and major employers have mass shooter training?
- Activate the plan. The actual incident, however, will not match the plan and the scenario training. Having a strong foundation enables responders to improvise based on the uniqueness of the situation. Expect the unexpected; be prepared to be surprised. Dan Singer was city manager of Goleta, California, when seven people were killed at a mail processing plant. He noted that government is accustomed to “following the rules,” which can help guide an organization in a time of crisis, but that not every scenario can be predetermined. Singer said that key participants must think creatively, intuitively, and non-bureaucratically. Has your city’s team exercised sufficiently to act creatively?
- Take care of the victims and their loved ones. This is one of the most critical and most challenging tasks. Once the scene is secured and people are out of danger, a new phase of difficult and emotional work begins. In everything that is done, it is critical to show the highest possible regard for the dignity of the people who may have died and the highest possible level of sensitivity to people who have lost loved ones. Family assistance is critical. Families need to have a number to call and someone with whom to talk. Many family members will gather at the scene. A safe, secure, and private location needs to be established for the families where they can get accurate information and support services and have their basic needs met. Delays in identifying victims and clearing the crime scene will seem endless and create considerable anxiety for family members. They need to know that people are aware of their needs and are doing everything possible to meet them. They need empathy with action. Skip Noe, city manager of Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were killed and 58 injured in 2012 shooting, advised local government staff to take their time and follow the lead of victims. “Putting the victims first will always put responders and the local government in the best position.” In addition to a response plan, does your city have a plan to cope with victims and their families in the aftermath? If so, has it been tested?
- Take care of your people, yourself, and the community. It may seem strange that the community is listed last in this heading; however, if first responders and other officials, including the manager, are emotionally impaired, they cannot take care of others. A mass death event, however, presents images never imagined, images indelibly etched into everyone’s memory. Early intervention can make a difference. Critical stress debriefing is an essential part of the preplanning and requires immediate deployment. It’s a mistake to think that intervention is only needed for first responders. A mass death event takes an emotional toll and counseling needs to be rapidly available for everyone, including local government staff members. What is your city’s plan for dealing with employees? Is there a trusted entity prepared to provide the support services and will your employees use them?
- Manage the media and other outsiders. The number of media outlets is overwhelming and their reach is global. Media transmit 24/7, with an insatiable appetite. Have a media management plan in place, including contingency resources from outside the organization. Be prepared to take these actions:
- Designate a media manager.
- Find a place to stage the media.
- Meet the media’s basic safety and sustenance needs.
- Give the media visuals.
- Schedule regular briefings.
- Select a spokesperson; have a clear message and stick to it. What resources can your city devote to the media? Are they prepared for 24/7 international coverage? Do you have a communications consultant on retainer with experience in crisis communications? How will you deal with tweets from the President of the United States?
- Facilitate an ad hoc memorial and appropriate events. People are compelled to demonstrate their sadness and hurt. Help make a memorial happen. Find a place for it and protect it. At an appropriate time, retire it and preserve the artifacts as appropriate. Who will have this responsibility in your city? How will site management decisions be made?
- Manage donations and volunteers. Beyond the ad hoc memorial, a number of people will want to help, often with money, which needs a depository and a trustworthy administrator to oversee it. People will also want to make donations of goods and services, whether these are needed or not. Realize that these are good people with good intent who sincerely want to help. Give them a way to do so and have a strategy in place to accomplish it. Who will manage donations in your community? Is there a trusted third party? How will disbursement decisions be made?
- Plan a permanent memorial. Involve the families of victims and others intimately connected to the event. Set realistic goals that are achievable within a reasonable period of time. How will your city honor those lost and those who responded?
- Learn and share. The community will have to resolve a long list of tasks: clearing the crime scene; reopening or permanently closing the site of the incident; attending to such legal matters as lawsuits and trials; and handling the many requests from outside organizations for presentations about the event, with the heaviest demands likely to be on the police and fire chiefs. In the months after the incident, there will be official reviews—after-action reports, commission reports, legislative reports—any and all of which may second-guess what the manager and his/her team did and how they performed. Former Blacksburg City Manager Mark Verniel recommended embracing legitimate criticism and using it as a lesson for everyone. He noted that Columbine is a great example of how people learned to operate differently. What system and structure will your city establish to effectively manage post-shooting events while being able to return attention to other community needs?
The ability to “move on” for the long-term may be the hardest task of all. Dealing with all of the above issues creates a new day-to-day reality that can become an obsession. All involved will be changed forever.“Surreal” is a word that has often been used to describe gun-violence tragedies. Managers must find the support to move on themselves, so that they can help the community move on, honoring those lost and building a community for the living, for their children, and for posterity. Your comments (below) are most welcome.
Note: for downloadable database on mass shootings in the U.S., see motherjones.com.
Ron Carlee is a visiting assistant professor of public service at Old Dominion University, former city manager of Charlotte, NC, former chief operating officer of ICMA, and former county manager of Arlington County, Virginia.