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Joe Supervielle: Welcome to Voices in Local Government, an ICMA podcast. My name is Joe Supervielle. With us today are Sarah Peck and Emily Nink, who researched and wrote the Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook, a free resource every city manager and public safety official needs to read. Thank you for joining us today.

Emily Nink: Hi, Joe. Thanks for having us.

Sarah Peck: We're glad to be here.

Joe Supervielle: As we get into the today's topic, Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook, I just up top want to give the disclaimer, this is not a conversation about the second amendment or legislation, it's about how local government leaders can do training beforehand, learn how the immediate response actions can help, and even in the long-term recovery for a community that goes through something like this, so again, we're not getting into policy here. It's really a matter of how local government leaders can help once a tragedy occurs.

Sarah Peck: Yes, Joe. Let me just jump in here to say that we are an organization that's taking a public health approach to this, and our research has included mayors from both the Republican and the Democratic Party and from cities all over the country, so it's really a nonpartisan effort to focus on saving lives and helping communities recover from mass shootings.

Joe Supervielle: Can we start by explaining for the audience UnitedOnGuns and PHIA, the relationship how those two organizations work together on this project, and maybe the perspectives from each of you?

Sarah Peck: The Public Health Advocacy Institute is the organization that is doing this research. UnitedOnGuns is the initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute. When I left the State Department in 2019, I approached Dick Daynard, who is the founder of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, and asked him whether he would be interested in focusing on gun violence as a public health issue, and he said yes, so really, we're a team working on this issue together, but using their very deep resources on public health approaches to issues including tobacco, obesity, and other issues that affect the health of Americans.

Joe Supervielle: These two resources are available at for our audience who will check them out. We'll link it on the website and all the ICMA platforms. We'll get into some of the specific topics and examples from the case studies you've done and the research you've done with some of the mayors, but can you start with explanation on each of the two resources, what they are, how they complement each other?

Sarah Peck: Sure. Let me start by telling you where the idea came from. I had the opportunity to meet Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, who responded to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, and I asked him, "What on that day did you need that you didn't have?" and he said, "I really could have used a mass shooting protocol," so that's what we set out to do. We returned to the university, working with Emily, who put together a research protocol that was approved by the IRB board there, so this was approved research through a university, and we approached the leaders of six cities to understand how elected officials and their teams of first responders responded to the mass shootings in those cities. Those cities were The Pulse shooting in Orlando, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, the Walmart shooting in El Paso, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, and shootings also in San Bernardino, and Dayton, Ohio. Emily can also go into much more detail about how those cities were selected.

In all, we interviewed 16 mayors and first responders, not the law enforcement aspect, which is very widely reported, but what those elected officials did, what their actions actually were. The result is a two-part resource, the protocol, which is a short document. It's not even an outline. It's just a very small part, the first 24 hours of a response, and the key actions and decisions that a mayor or a city manager will have to make in those first hours following the news that there's been a shooting. I've got some examples of some of the things that you would find in the playbook.

Communications. We focus on the issues that as a city leader that you would need to focus on and also some of the best practices to the most important things that you would need to do. For example, a city leader, in addition to the law enforcement official, whether it's the FBI or the chief of police, the elected officials and the city managers, they are the voice of the community, and they need to take a role at the press conference. They need to help work with law enforcement to decide who will speak and in what order and what they're going to say. With emergency operations, it's often the mayor or the city manager who launches the emergency operations center, and they are the ones who decide whether or not to declare a local state of emergency. According to the city attorney in Orlando, there's almost no downside to that, so that's one of the considerations that we help city leaders think through whether or not they would need to do that.

The law enforcement obviously is dealing with the response to the criminal or the assailant side of the thing, but the city leaders are the ones who take over from there and provide all of the services and support that the victims and their families are going to need. This all starts to happen immediately following a shooting. A family reunification center needs to be stood up, and as soon as that is done, a family assistance center that provides immediate but longer-term services are needed.

It's important to do it right. One of the things that we learned from the mayors that we interviewed, and they were largely mayors in our research, was that it's crucial to separate the press from these centers. There needs to be a secured boundary around these centers so that the press does not approach the families who are grieving and are having a difficult time. That's something that the city leaders need to be thinking about as they assign the locations of these centers. It's crucial to establish a victim's fund to receive donations right away. We give some tips on what to do in those first hours, thinking through that issue.

Then, of course, they'll need to start thinking about the longer-term aspects of this. There will be a recovery and it will take years and there are some steps to take in those initial days. Well, those are the key categories in the protocol. I think it's a real vote of confidence that some of the mayors that we worked with have already started to send that four-page document around to other city leaders in recent days that have had to respond to mass shootings.

But separate from the protocol is the playbook. The playbook is a 200-page resource. It covers every aspect of the preparedness phase, the response phase, and that recovery phase. It has 10 chapters. It covers many of the topics that I just mentioned, but it also includes a special chapter focused only on school shootings. It has appendices that are us on handling a VIP or a presidential visit, funding resources, and afterward that talks about community gun violence, which is a different kind of mass shooting, something that leaders need to be thinking about, and suicide prevention.

We really want city leaders to see the playbook as the entire tree, with the roots, all the branches, the leaves, the walnuts, everything. Everything is in that tree. You don't need to review it all in one sitting. It's more like an encyclopedia. Everything is there, the key resources that you would need, best practices that came from actual experiences of first responders and mayors, and vignettes that show how the leaders in our research handle the specific topic, like how Mayor Dyer negotiated with the FBI about who would speak first at the press conference, or how the city of Parkland organized its first remembrance ceremony the first year after the shooting, so those kinds of details help city leaders think through what would be appropriate for their community.

Joe Supervielle: When you approach the mayors of the city leaders from some of these locations, was there willingness on their end because they were eager to share both maybe what worked and also what didn't work for others? How did you even start that process of interviewing them and gathering the information?

Emily Nink: Sure. Well, we are so grateful to everyone who participated in the research because it's really their experiences that bring the playbook to life and help illustrate the topic for others who are in similar situations. We approached them, letting them know it was a research study and what are the risks and benefits of participating in a research study. We were really happy that most of the people we approached wanted to participate and share their experiences. They connected us with other staff. They helped us figure out who in their offices were the first responders that we really needed to talk to to better understand what happened in the aftermath of these events, so they were able to put us in touch with the right people so that we could interview chiefs of staff, communications experts within their office, law enforcement, police chiefs, so they helped us expand the research to make sure that we were getting the full picture during these interviews.

They were in-depth interviews. We spent two hours with each city leader and at least an hour with the other types of respondents, and then did some background interviews as well with experts from national organizations that have responded to the same events that we were studying, so we tried to take an in-depth look for these six particular cases, but of course, it is case study research, so it's an in-depth look at these six cases in particular to help illustrate the topic.

Joe Supervielle: Okay. You just mentioned it's not just interviewing the mayor or city leader, there are other department heads, and also, not just the police chief, you mentioned the communications team. Can either of you tell me a little bit more about who are the critical leaders that can address the different populations and ensure that resiliency within a community?

Emily Nink: Sure. Well, in addition to law enforcement leaders, as Sarah said, they're really well prepared to respond to these events. They go through really intense training and active shooter trainings that aren't always open to civilian city officials, so we wanted to focus on what's happening on the civilian side. What else needs to happen besides the law enforcement response? Once that crime tape is gone, how does the community recover from there? We wanted to figure out what mayors, city managers, city attorneys are doing on their side, so that research protocol was really designed around that. We found that a lot of mayors and city managers don't necessarily do the advanced planning. Some had participated in active shooter trainings with law enforcement, or some had done tabletop exercises related to crisis management, but they felt like they weren't totally prepared for responding despite the preparation activities that they had done.

Joe Supervielle: Well, right there, it's almost impossible to be fully prepared for something like this. It's kind of one of those things where you can train or get the knowledge, but you can't truly simulate something that intense. What was the typical answer for what they wish they had done prior? Is that what these two resources try to capture?

Sarah Peck: Well, if I could jump in to say that we do strongly recommend preparedness, and it really isn't so much that these leaders made terrible mistakes. They were quite impressive. I mean, they are courageous, compassionate people, but even with things that they did that were similar, having experience responding to tornadoes, or in the case of Orlando, they did do a tabletop exercise on being able to respond to civil unrest. None of the mayors that we interviewed really had done any preparation for a long-term recovery, so what we would say is there is preparation that you can do in advance.

Let's just talk a bit about what we're recommending because I think this gives you a good idea. To use that example of doing a tabletop exercise, that's a really great place to start, and you can bring together all of the stakeholders that you ask, who are the other leaders, so there are many stakeholders in your community that need to be part of this planning. Of course, you have law enforcement, but who is that? That might be county law enforcement, too, if you're a small community. That probably also includes the FBI. Every region has an FBI special agent in charge. Those people should be included in this planning.

You may want to include school district leaders. You will certainly want to include public health officials. That was a group of people that aren't normally regularly in contact with city offices. You would bring together all of these holders to think through, "What are the things that we need to think about before anything like this happens?" For example, I mentioned before, "Where would we locate? If this happens at this school, where would we put the family reunification center? If it happens at this stadium and you can't put it in this stadium, where would you put the family reunification center?"

Those are examples, but there's so many other things. You need to think about protocols to govern how you're going to handle public record requests. You need to understand what laws even apply to what you're doing so that you don't run afoul of laws. You are going to be not inventing things on the fly if you've already thought about what is the structure that you would use to create a victim's fund. Would you use an existing 501(c)(3) like the city of Orlando did, or would you use the National Compassion Fund, or would you work with a local NGO? Those are all viable options, but it helps a lot to think about that in advance.

Do you have something in place that will help you with volunteer management? So many people are going to step forward to help you, but are you prepared to accept their help? One of the things that we learned that was a problem, and really, all of these mass shootings, was it took a long time for the coroner's office to identify the victims, yet mostly it was known who the victims were because it was a small population of potential victims, but they were following the state law or their protocols for identifying the deceased. This is something that actually can be negotiated and planned in advance to have a protocol for identifying victims in a mass casualty event that's an expedited process, and that can really help relieve trauma and grief to family members. As bad as the news is, you do want to know it as soon as possible.

I mentioned the city attorney before, meeting in advance with your city attorney and your chief of staff, and some of these, the "C4" we call group of people, your city manager, your chief of staff, your city attorney, your chief financial officer, to think through mutual aid agreements, insurance issues, and other things that could relate to the liability that a city might face, and finally, just coming up with the names and the phone numbers of everybody that you might need to call if something like this happens. Going through that process helps everyone understand what their role is, who they need to call, reminds them to put together a go-bag, so if that call comes in, they're ready to roll, and they know where to go. They know where to show up. They know what their job is going to be. That is something that you can do in an afternoon. Then people are all on board and you understand what your role is. It's really something that I think every city small and large should do at least once during the term of a mayor.

Joe Supervielle: That preparation can reduce the potential for internal confusion if and when something happens, and that way, not to expect that things will go perfectly, but to just reduce as much of that as possible on the front end so the energy and the time can be spent in responding and then thinking ahead to the longer term.

Sarah Peck: Yeah, and make sure that you have the mental health experts involved early on because the long-term issue is trauma, and that is the part that rarely is planned.

Joe Supervielle: At the top, we gave that disclaimer, but once something like this happens, it is seemingly difficult to avoid the politics of it. Do either of your resources touch on that? Specifically, to the ICMA member community, city managers are nonpartisan. It's not a political or elected office, goes without saying for them, but once something like this happens, it could be difficult to avoid that. Do the resources touch on that?

Emily Nink: Yeah. Across the board, we really heard this was a major challenge for city leaders to address in their own communications, as well as controlling the narrative at the vigils and events that happen after a mass shooting. They were all extremely dedicated to providing messages of unity, strength, resilience, not politicizing this, knowing that that would really exacerbate the trauma that people were going through and lead to division rather than unity at a time when it's so important for the community to come together, especially when you think about the fact that a lot of these shootings target a certain subgroup or community, either racially motivated or motivated by hate. It can be a challenge when you're managing a lot of visitors to your community, from state officials, federal officials. You can't control everything they're going to say, who's going to speak when, so that can be a major challenge for local government to bring everyone to a message that's apolitical, that's about the local community, and providing and support to the affected community.

Sarah Peck: If I could jump in there, just to answer your question about what are the resources in the playbook that might be useful there, we do have an appendix that focuses on VIP visits. What the city leaders we spoke to recommend ended was finding ways that the leaders who are visiting, whether it's from your state capital, or from cities in your region, helping them find actions that they can do, whether it's meeting with victims and their families, or meeting with first responders and so on that help promote healing, and giving them some coaching about appropriate things that would be healing and welcomed by family members that they might be meeting.

That's just an example of one of the resources that we have, but it goes also to the issue of communications. The very first chapter in the playbook is about communications. We say, because we researched mayors, that the mayor is the communicator in chief for the community, but that depending on the form of government, it may very well be the city manager. It may be a press person that's managed by city leaders. But the important thing is that this is the opportunity to promote community healing because trauma is the public health issue, and that is your job is to address the public health ramifications of these terrifically traumatizing events.

Having trauma-informed messaging is what is the job at hand, and we go into a great deal of detail in the playbook to lay out resources from the CDC, for example, that have basic techniques for crisis communications. I mean, I'll just throw out a few of them here: Schedule press conferences early and often to make sure that people are informed, they understand what's happening. You can prevent misinformation. Use simple, consistent messages that are amplified by credible sources. That's really important. Let the Public Safety Office be the main provider of information and updates, and then other city offices can amplify those messages.

As Emily mentioned, deliver messages of hope and unity. This is the time to be bringing the community together. Obviously, there's a mental health component here. There are services that are needed. Being out front, letting people know where to go to get help, and using personal messages of the city leader modeling seeking help, talking to somebody, coping with confusing thoughts and trauma. As Emily mentioned, it's really important to try to take steps to avoid politicizing press conferences or vigils because you can re-traumatize family members, and that isn't anyone's goal during these difficult times.

Joe Supervielle: You both did touch on the tabletop exercises as one of the best places to start, and some of the preparation work, but beyond the mass shooting incidents, can you talk a little bit about the benefits of this type of planning, or what the playbook and protocol can help inform people, whether it's maybe a weather event, or other kind of emergency disaster category? Being prepared and going through some of these things, can you speak to the benefits beyond just a mass shooting incident?

Emily Nink: Sure, yeah. A lot of the recommendations in the playbook really do apply to other types of mass casualty incidents or disasters. It can seem really overwhelming to take all these preparedness steps just in case of a mass shooting, but I think it would really improve coordination and streamline communication across the government for other types of crises as well, so it's definitely worth it to go through.

One of the keys is really thinking about the local partnerships that are already in place in your community. There's great national resources and experts that can help respond to a mass shooting, in particular, since they've done it many times, and have experience in that area, but there's also great local partners. Your community foundation in your city could help with managing donations to victims, whether those are victims of a mass shooting or a disaster. In the case of Dayton, for example, the mayor relied on an existing partnership developed in response to the opioid crisis when she was developing trauma-informed messaging after the Oregon District shooting.

Just thinking about who you can tap, who you already know, and having those local partners be already embedded within your community is so important. They're already trusted by the community that's affected and can respond really quickly and within an understanding of community needs. That could be translation and interpretation needs that arise, legal services. There's just so many services for victims and families in the broader community that are needed in the aftermath of a mass casualty incident, whether it's a mass shooting or something else, that it's just good to think about ahead of time who would you have on speed dial, who do you know as a partner already, and having those types of conversations and having those trusted partnerships in place ahead of time. There's really no substitute for having those in advance.

Sarah Peck: If I could add there.

Joe Supervielle: Sure.

Sarah Peck: Two points. One is we had a good conversation with a chief of staff of one of the mayor's offices that we interviewed and she said that she had been in contact. These offices, having lived through one of these mass shooting, they often reach out to other cities to offer support, and this office reached out to the mayor of Surfside after the tragic condo collapse, and the chief of staff told us... I really realized that so much of what I was telling her was everything that you have written here in the playbook, it's very much the similar kinds of needs that the victims are experiencing, the support that they're going to need, and not only mental health, but housing issues, and childcare issues, all kinds of things that you don't think about unless you think about it in advance. That's what you can do with, there's all kinds of checklists in the playbook that can help you think through that.

The other point is Emily mentioned that there are all kinds of community partners that you may already have relationships with, or you may notice gaps if you do advanced planning. It can reach out to those community organizations and begin to establish relationships with them. But one of the national partners is the American Red Cross, and they are at all of these kinds of events. They're at the mass shootings. They show up at these other mass casualty events and weather-related events, so they are an important partner, and they're a partner that a mayor's office or city manager may not actually know. They may not know the local representatives. That's definitely an organization that you would want to know the local representative and have them on speed dial, as Emily said.

Joe Supervielle: For the audience, just the mention of a 200-page resource, it doesn't need to be overwhelming. You said it earlier, it's not something they're necessarily supposed to be memorized, but it's a tool to use as they're going through this planning to reference and recheck as they need it. For the ICMA audience, we should have an opportunity to do deeper dives into some of the actual chapters, which we've pretty much touched on everything, but I'll just list them out in order, as Sarah and Emily have given examples. The chapters are Communications, Emergency Management, Victims and Families, Law Enforcement, Donations, School Shootings, Community Partnerships, Legal Considerations, Commemorations, and Mental Health.

For the ICMA members or audience who are listening, we are open and interested in your feedback on what maybe the top two or three of those specific chapters would be to learn more about. Please send that feedback in, and hopefully we can do deeper dives in the future. But for today, Sarah and Emily, I just really appreciate your time on a difficult subject. I think the resources and this is going to be really helpful for the audience. Anything else you'd like to add?

Sarah Peck: Sure. I'd like to remind your audience how to get a copy of these resources, what they're likely to find. You mentioned that they can find them on the website. They can also find it on the US Conference of Mayor's website. I think that's a nice endorsement. What they'll find, if you go to our website, you'll see a blue button. Click on that. It says protocol and playbook. Then we've tried to make this as user-friendly as possible. You can click on just the protocol. You can print that off. Like I said, it's a very short document. You can review the chapters in the playbook, so if you're only interested in the Communications chapter, you want to see the checklist on how to organize a press conference, or you're interested in that topic, or School Shootings, for example, you can just print off the chapter that you want. They're not that long. They have a one-page summary and each one of them has a checklist at the end.

You can read the playbook online. You can move it over to your Kindle. That's what I do. I carry it around on my phone. But you can take the link to your local Staples and they can print it out for you, or go to our website and order a printed copy. We've made an arrangement with a printer who can print it out and, I'm sorry, wrap it up. It'll be three-hole punched and you can put it in your city binder. You can take whatever pieces of it that interests you to your meetings or share and print, copy for others. That's at cost. It's just what the cost of printing it is, so we really are trying to make it as accessible and useful as possible, and we encourage people to share it with others, to send it, if you are interested and you found it helpful, to share it within your membership community and with your colleagues so that others have a chance to see it as well.

Joe Supervielle: Yeah, not just for mayors or city managers, or even police chiefs, public safety professionals, people in the communications team, city council membership themselves. This is helpful and almost invaluable resource for everyone involved. Sarah, Emily, again, thanks for your time. We will follow-up on another topic shortly.

Emily Nink: Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.

Sarah Peck: Thank you very much.

Guest Information

Sarah Peck, J.D., Director, UnitedOnGuns

Emily Nink M.S., Policy Associate, Public Health Advocacy Institute

Episode Notes

In this episode, we bypass partisan gun control arguments to focus on the near-impossible responsibility local government officials face after a mass-casualty event. Researched by the Public Health Advocacy Institute and informed by local government leaders who have held their communities together through tragedy, the Mass Shooting Playbook is a vital resource on the work needed to prepare, immediately respond, and continued healing long after the cameras and national news spotlight are gone.

The Protocol is a four-page overview of a leader’s role during the first 24 hours after a mass shooting. It highlights the key decisions and includes a checklist highlighting immediate action steps.

The Playbook is a 200-page resource guide informed by the recommendations and experience of mayors and local government leaders who have responded to a mass shooting, including case studies from Orlando, Dayton, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Parkland, and San Bernardino.

It is organized into ten topic areas: communications, emergency management, victims and families, law enforcement, donations, school shootings, community partnerships, legal considerations, commemorations, and mental health. Each chapter includes key takeaways on the actions and training in advance of a mass shooting; actions during the response phase; and guidance for providing services to victims, family members, and the broader community as they recover.


Get the Mass Shooting Protocol - First 24 Hours | FREE Download

Get the Mass Shooting Playbook | FREE Download

Download the free tabletop exercise pilot template from Orlando, Fl.

Read Sarah Peck and Emily Nink's post 'Is Your City Prepared to Respond to a Mass Shooting' on the ICMA Blog

Learn more about the Public Health Advocacy Institute

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