Public Safety Lessons from Sandy Hook, Aurora

Get first responder training and media relations advice for mass casualty events in lessons from Sandy Hook and other MCIs.


Editor’s Note: It’s been five years since the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting and the lessons from Sandy Hook Elementary School for local government emergency management are as important for public safety managers as remembering the lives lost. What follows was presented at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in 2014 by police chiefs.

Lessons from Sandy Hook

No community, large or small, is immune to mass casualty events. At the 121st annual IACP in Orlando, Florida, law enforcement leaders who experienced mass casualty events shared their experiences in an effort to help other communities prepare.

Our events all looked different, but there are common themes and things you should know about a tragedy, should one hit your community,” said Chief Michael Kehoe of Newtown, Connecticut.

The first thing law enforcement leaders need to understand is that the aftermath of this event will last months and years after the incident. “The Newtown school shooting was shocking in itself, but the aftermath was shocking as well,” said Kehoe.

Chief Ronnie Bastin of Lexington, Kentucky, agreed, saying that even eight years after the crash of Comair Flight 5191 that claimed 49 lives, there are trigger points for his officers.

“You must remember that your folks will carry a lot of baggage from this incident,” said Bastin.

Law enforcement leaders must remain vigilant regarding officer wellness and look for signs of PTSD even years after the event.

“You need to have a baseline for your people so you notice when something is off and you can intervene before they unravel,” said Bastin.

Training First Responders for Resilience

Preparing for an incident can go a long way during an actual response.

“The outcome is never going to be good, but your chance of having a better outcome will be improved if you’ve trained,” said Captain Paul O’Keefe of Aurora, Colorado. Not only does training help with the response itself, but it also helps improve the resiliency of responders.

While an agency can never train for every possible event, there are many similarities from these incidents. Here are some mass casualty incident (MCI) response training suggestions from the panelists:

  • Use existing communications equipment to help identify equipment needs and training gaps.
  • Train with other agencies including fire and EMS.
  • Attend regional meetings to form local relationships.
  • Have mutual aid agreements in place with neighboring departments to provide assistance across daily and MCI needs .
  • Have realistic conversations about what responders can expect at MCI incidents.

Editor’s Note: Learn about Basic MCI Strategies in Part 1 and Part 2 of our series.

Activate Decision Making Chain

Law enforcement leaders must also realize their own limitations.

No matter how much you’ve trained or prepared, expect to be overwhelmed,” said Bastin. “Pick folks you can rely on and delegate duties. You will not be able to make decisions on everything.”
Managing Media Relations

The media will come from all over the world, causing traffic jams and bombarding the community.

“The media will overwhelm you,” said Kehoe. He was bombarded with media requests and recommends that agencies assign a public information officer (PIO) to handle these requests.

The experienced presenters recommended all first responder leaders develop a plan in advance for crisis communications and releasing information, provide extra information, if possible.

“One lesson I learned is that you can’t forget about your local media,” said Kehoe.

Also, consider assigning a PIO to the victims’ families to help them navigate the media because the media will contact officers and victims, O’Keefe advised.

General Organizational Tips

These actions will help guide officials responding to MCI events:

  1. Identify locations that can hold large groups of people. Contact individuals in charge of those facilities and develop plans.
  2. Provide response support. Have a plan for providing support for responders. Mental health should be a priority for officers and employees.
  3. Set up a volunteer system. Volunteers are critical to completing tasks that agencies and governments cannot do, but a system needs to be in place to organize volunteers.
  4. Establish a secure storage location for evidence. The amount of evidence collected at a mass casualty scene is often immense.
  5. Activate a donation and gift management plan. Identify a warehouse or other large space to put all the mail and donations.
  6. Anticipate additional threats. Have contingency plans in place for counter-protests that are likely to happen.
Never Lose Sight of the Victims

The greatest lessons from Sandy Hook and other MCI incidents, is how critical it is to remain focused on the needs of the victims, and to ensure that efforts and resources always have them top of mind.

Leischen Stelter

Leischen Stelter is the social media coordinator with the public safety team at American Military University. She writes about issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. Stelter is the former managing editor of Security Director News, an online business publication for physical security practitioners, where she spent four years writing articles, blogs and producing video segments on best practices in the private security industry. Visit Leischen Stelter’s blog, In Public Safety, to read many more columns and commentary of interest to public safety professionals. Follow her on Twitter @AMUPoliceEd and on Facebook.