Every year it seems, the United States experiences more active-shooter incidents. According to a report published earlier this year by researchers at Texas State University, 84 such incidents occurred in the 11 years after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings that left 12 students and one teacher dead, and injured another two dozen students. In 2000, one such incident occurred; but then the annual number increased, eventually spiking in 2009 and 2010, which saw 16 and 21 active-shooter incidents, respectively.

So, it should come as no surprise that several educational sessions at last month’s Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Anaheim, Calif., focused on the lessons that have been learned from such incidents. In one session, Mark Spross, communications manager for the Clackamas County (Ore.) Department of Communications shared what his agency learned in the aftermath of the Clackamas Town Center mall shooting incident that occurred last December. For example, Spross said that emergency response was aided greatly by 911 telecommunicators’ intimate knowledge of the mall’s layout; on the other hand, response was made more challenging because the agency’s CAD system became overloaded.

In another session, William Pessemier—the former fire chief of Littleton, Colo., who oversaw incident command in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings—shared what he learned from the Columbine event. Pessemier said that situational awareness initially was “very low,” largely because there was no coordinated communication between police and fire.

“We hadn’t planned for joint operations,” he said. “I hate to have to say that.”

Considering the scope of the incident, that was a big problem. Originally, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were senior students at the school, intended to detonate a backpack that they had left in the cafeteria and then shoot students as they ran out of the building, Pessemier said. But the explosion never happened, so they went to Plan B, which was to enter the school and open fire. Either way, their intention was to cause the largest number of casualties possible, according to Pessemier.

“We very quickly had quite a mess on our hands, and it’s really difficult to [organize response] when you can’t communicate,” said Pessemier, who today is director of the Summit County (Colo.) Communications Center, a regional 911 center that provides service to nearly all of the county’s public-safety agencies.  “Very quickly, we encountered the classic communications problems that you get into when you have large-scale operations like this.”

Because of the lack of coordinated communication between police and fire, paramedics who were trying to get injured students into ambulances at one point found themselves in the middle of a firefight between the shooters and law-enforcement officers.

“We were lucky that [Harris and Klebold] were really bad shots,” Pessemier said.

Things got so crazy at one point that a deputy fire chief was taken down at gunpoint by law-enforcement officers.

“When police and fire aren’t talking to each other, things really can get out of control,” Pessemier said. “One of my training chiefs—still in his black bunker gear and carrying a radio in his hand—had come to the scene and had entered the perimeter. The shooters were reported to be wearing black trench coats. To the police sniper who was looking through his scope from quite a distance away, my chief looked just like someone wearing a trench coat and holding a gun.”

System overload was another big problem that was widespread and borne of inadequate planning, according to Pessemier.

“The cell-phone system was overloaded, the regular phone system was overloaded, and our radio system didn’t work, because we were overloading that,” he said. “So, we resorted to runners, the same way that the Roman army conquered the world. None of our systems worked, because we hadn’t planned [for something like this].”

Pessemier added that his radio system became overloaded largely because no one had the foresight to establish dedicated communications channels for the command, operations and task levels.

“So, we tried to cram everybody onto one channel—and guess what happened? Messages couldn’t get through, because there were too many people trying to talk on one channel,” Pessemier said. “We hadn’t really though through how many people can you really get onto one channel and still be able to talk to each other. … If you get more than 20 units on one channel, you’re done.”

So, it’s vital to create an incident-command plan that incorporates a well-conceived radio-communications plan. It’s also critically important to get police and fire talking on a daily basis.

“Then, all they have to do is ramp up when a big event occurs,” Pessemier said.

However, he acknowledged that, given the cultural divide that traditionally has existed between the police and fire services, achieving this goal might prove to be elusive. To clear this hurdle, Pessemier suggested that the 911 sector should step up to bridge the gap.

“What you want to get to is joint regional planning—integrated and coordinated, in terms of the structure and the process that's going to be used to respond to large-scale [incidents],” he said. “I think there’s nobody better situated to drag these public-safety people together than the communication center, because you are the absolute hub of everything that’s going to happen when some kind of large-scale thing hits your community.”

While it sounds good in theory, Pessemier said that—in reality—911 sector officials likely will get the proverbial “deer in the headlights look” from police and fire chiefs at first, and that they ultimately may need to be “dragged by the ear” into such a scenario.

“But you need operational changes to get better performance, and you have to start somewhere,” he said. “[Communications centers] provide service to all of these agencies, so [they’re] uniquely positioned to do this.”