For 911 telecommunicators, familiarity breeds excellent response
ANAHEIM, Calif.—They used to be rare, but shooting incidents in facilities where large numbers of people are present are happening with greater frequency, so it would behoove public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to start preparing for them. To that end, 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.
The mall is located in Happy Valley, Ore., a suburb of Portland. The county is home to about 380,000 people, as well as the Mt. Hood recreation area, and is served by two PSAPs. On Dec. 11, 2012, at about 3:25 p.m., a 22-year-old man wearing a white hockey mask and a bullet-proof vest entered the shopping center and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. At the time, about 10,000 people were in the mall, as it was the busy Christmas shopping season. The gunman killed two people and seriously wounded a third before committing suicide.
One thing that really helped that day was that the county’s dispatchers were very familiar with the mall’s layout, Spross said.
“One of the police officers transmitted that he needed assistance and that he was outside of Macy’s—I’m not sure, but he might have been with one of the victims,” Spross said. “Well, there’s a regular Macy’s and a Macy’s home store that are across the mall from each other. The dispatcher asked him which Macy’s and he said he didn’t know.
“So, the dispatcher—who was very familiar with that mall and who was thinking on her feet—asked him whether he saw furniture or clothing. It seems like a basic question … but it was really helpful.”
A seemingly innocuous choice of words uttered by a dispatcher had an enormous effect on how the response played out, according to Spross. In transmitting the incident to law-enforcement personnel, the dispatcher described it as an active-shooter incident rather than more simply calling it a shooting incident. Inserting the word “active” dramatically changed the paradigm, Spross said.
“If you broadcast that there’s been a shooting at the mall, patrol officers are going to start paying attention,” he said. “But—and I can’t stress this enough, if you get this type of incident—this dispatcher broadcast, in the first few seconds, that this was an ‘active’ shooter incident.
“What do you think happens to officers when they hear that? They get pretty excited. The second he said that, every single police car in the metropolitan area headed that way.”
Not everything learned in the aftermath of the incident was positive. The agency’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system couldn’t handle the load on the day of the shooting, with the result being “a lot of clutter and lost information,” Spross said. Consequently, the department will resort to an old-school workaround solution should an incident like this happen again.
“CAD is a great tool, but … when you have this type of a big call, guess what? Everything gets dumped in there,” Spross said. “So, you might generate a second CAD call. We will sometimes do that, especially for big weather events that blow through our area, but you lose the critical information. … So, we’re going back to flip charts. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll look at technology that can help us [solve this problem].”
In addition, the communication between police and fire personnel left something to be desired, according to Spross.
“It took law enforcement awhile to set up an incident command and to do a joint incident command with fire,” he said. “When they finally did, neither really was very clear on where they were getting information. … It was a classic, ‘police over here and fire over there, and they’re not talking’ situation. And, when they finally did start talking, they were sharing incorrect information.”