A very big lesson
There are numerous similarities between the tragedies at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and now Aurora. One of those similarities is that in each case, first responders did a fantastic job and were well served by their respective communications systems.
Having said that, it seems to me that there was another important similarity. While the communications that occurred after the shootings began were important, there was a lack of communication before the incidents. Not by first responders, but by the public. Somewhere, somehow, someone knew that something wasn't right with these people. And that information never was communicated to the proper authorities.
The standard joke concerns people who will walk by an incident on the street in a large city and do nothing. While I think that no longer is the case with regard to potential terrorist situations, it certainly seems to be the case with other types of potential situations.
I'm separating these incidents, where people are randomly killed for no clear reason, from true terrorist situations, where there is a reason (albeit not a good one) for killing. It seems to me that we are doing a decent job of communicating before the incident about terrorist situations. But these random situations aren't getting the same kind of public vigilance that we've been asked to perform regarding terrorism.
Someone had to know that something wasn't right. Someone had to sense that something was wrong. But no one communicated that or — in the Virginia Tech case — the right system of communicating concern wasn't in place. It's not just having the physical communications system available for a response; it's also having the right methods of communications available before incidents occur.
The public isn't educated on when to report. The public isn't educated on where to report concerns. Certainly dispatchers and other public-safety personnel receive training on how to communicate, but the public really doesn't.
In many of these cases, the failure is a human one. When communication did occur, public-safety officials took appropriate action. However, the communication came far too late. Again, the systems of communication functioned, but the communication didn't occur when it should have.
The point is that we can spend all of the money possible to ensure that communications systems are state of the art, but if those systems aren't used properly, we don't get the benefits. One of the lessons to be learned from these incidents is the importance of the actual communications. Let's make that a priority, too.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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