FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONSE TO THE COLUMBINE TRAGEDY

FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONSE TO THE COLUMBINE TRAGEDY

MARK WALLACE

SUSAN BRIGHTMIRE

At 11:20 a.m. on April 20, 1999, Littleton (CO) Fire Department Engine 13 responded to a report of an explosion and fire in a field approximately 212 miles southwest of Columbine High School. This was a diversionary tactic.

At 11:21 a.m., 911 received a call of shots fired at Columbine High School. The school is located in unincorporated Jefferson County, in the southwestern part of the Denver metro area, and within the Littleton Fire Department`s jurisdiction. Two students–Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17–wearing fatigues, trench coats, and masks, shot five students outside the school. Then they threw hand grenade-like bombs into a nearby parking lot. As they approached the building, they shot a student standing at a second-floor library window.

A Jefferson County sheriff`s officer was stationed at the school full-time. When the incident began, he responded and exchanged gunfire with the gunmen. No one was hit.

Panic quickly ensued. As the gunmen approached the commons area/cafeteria, students and faculty scattered. A teacher instructed students to escape; he was later shot and killed. Some hid under tables. Many ran and escaped. Some were shot at and some were injured. Others hid. Bombs were thrown and random shots fired.

The shooters made their way to the second-floor library, firing several guns and exploding homemade bombs. They killed several students at point-blank range. Others were shot while trying to escape; one student was shot while holding a door open for others to escape.

Many of the students who were hiding had access to phones or carried cellular phones. When they couldn`t get through to 911, some called various Denver television stations and were put on live. Many students didn`t realize they had to dial “9” to get an outside line.

At 11:25 a.m., with radio calls for help and a barrage of 911 calls, law enforcement was dispatched. All available police units responded, with several street officers arriving within three minutes. Several explosions and the need to remove and protect survivors made police hold their ground, remove the injured, and wait for reinforcements. In addition, bombs and what looked like booby traps were scattered throughout the area where the incident was unfolding.

Jefferson County activated its emergency plan early in the incident. An on-site emergency operation center (EOC) was set up in a nearby library.

Initial emergency personnel actions were more reactions until sufficient personnel arrived on-scene. The area was cordoned off very quickly. Additional resources were requested immediately. The initial chaos was soon transformed into an organized and controlled operation.

The main difficulty was that the scene was huge. Columbine High School has more than 1,900 students. Students escaped using every available exit and then ran for safety in the direction in which they left the building. No one knew where the shooters were or how many students were trapped, injured, or dead until after SWAT teams confirmed the suspects were dead.

FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONSE

At 11:28 a.m., the Littleton Fire Department was dispatched. First-arriving units initially thought they were dealing with a drive-by shooting because of the way it was aired. They were unprepared for the magnitude of the incident and the war-like conditions they saw on arrival. People exited the school and scattered, so victims could be found anywhere along the school`s perimeter. Some of the more seriously injured were in or very near the school. Firefighters and paramedics needed police protection to locate and remove the injured. The police and shooters exchanged gunfire during some dramatic rescues.

Several units pulled right up to the school building and, when they saw gunfire, had to pull back. Littleton Rescue 11 (rescues are Type I ambulances staffed by firefighter-paramedics) was used as a barricade at the front door; Rescue 13 shuttled victims to primary triage (the largest triage area–with 11 victims); and Engine 11 also was used as a barricade. A SWAT team member in full body armor had been quickly instructed on how to operate Engine 11, and he drove it up to the building as other SWAT team members crouched beside it for cover to access the building while being fired on by the gunmen.

At 11:28 a.m., the fire alarm sounded at the school. Subsequently, reports were received of smoke in the building.

At 11:37, the captain of Engine 11 enlisted the aid of a student to control the crowd and to begin separating students who may have seen the shooters for information-gathering purposes. At that time, he ordered fire personnel to remove their blue station uniform shirts so they would not be mistaken for police personnel.

The command post was being set up and organized by 11:40 a.m., 19 minutes after the incident began. By 11:55 a.m., Littleton Fire Chief Bill Pessemier was working with the Sheriff`s Office to establish a unified command. Two fire personnel coordinated all fire and EMS activities from the incident command post, and the fire and EMS branches were organized. Victim triage was a critical consideration at the incident. When people escaped the building, they just ran. There was no way to know where they all went. This made it impossible to establish a defined triage area at the start of the incident. Several critically injured victims had to be removed from inside the school. Many students were hysterical. EMS personnel had to evaluate them for injuries, and police had to question them to gather crucial information as the incident unfolded.

Law enforcement personnel entering the school encountered a surreal environment–fire sprinklers were operating, suppressing the fires created by bomb detonations. Sprinkler water cooled the smoke generated, pushing it to the floor and making visibility extremely difficult. Sprinklers and fire alarm signaling devices operated for more than two hours during the incident. Four to five sprinkler heads in the cafeteria completely contained and extinguished a fire that had been started there. Crews shut them down after the area was declared secure.

At 12:14 p.m., the injury count was four critical, four serious, and three stable patients. Ten ambulances and one helicopter were requested for transport. This was the largest concentration of patients at any one point in the incident.

Most of the time EMS personnel did not know where the shooters were. Gunshots and bomb explosions could be heard everywhere, and personnel could not distinguish police gunfire from the shooters` gunfire. Removing the wounded and hiding and protecting the ambulatory were difficult and time-consuming. As the minutes of the “Golden Hour” ticked away, personnel tried to get people to a safe location as quickly as possible.

One complicating factor was that there were reports that the shooters were changing clothes so they could blend in with the other students and make their escape. For a time, all students had to be considered suspects for everyone`s safety.

Command personnel took meticulous care to stay in touch with various hospitals throughout the incident. Continuous updates ensured that patients were transported to facilities with capabilities and bed space that suited their injuries. All ambulances were advised to specify their destination on HEAR (Hospital Emergency Administrative Radio). In addition, ambulances were ordered to utilize the FERN (Fire Emergency Response Network) for communications on-scene because it was a common frequency for multiple fire/EMS departments.

The last victim to be recovered was a student hanging out of the library window. He was bleeding and appeared ready to jump. A SWAT team, using an armored car as protection, drove up to the building, climbed up on the roof, and retrieved him.

When the shooting spree was over, 15 people were dead and 24 were transported to six area hospitals. Four were in critical condition; six were in serious condition. Injuries were the result of bullets and shrapnel from exploding bombs. Amazingly, all 24 injured survived. Among the dead were the two gunmen, with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

Nearly 500 law enforcement officers and 166 firefighters and EMS personnel from 10 jurisdictions had been on-scene, as were 10 apparatus, 48 EMS units, 25 fire department staff officers, and a fire department chaplain. The sheer volume of apparatus responding necessitated the establishment of primary and secondary staging areas. Two medical helicopter services with six personnel transported the critically injured to area trauma centers.

By about 4 p.m., SWAT teams had confirmed that the shooters were among the dead. Scattered among the bodies were numerous explosive devices. Some had timers, some were suspected booby traps, and some had partially detonated. Most were antipersonnel devices and were wrapped with nails and other materials. Suspicious “devices” were found outside the building, in and around parked cars.

Fire crews accompanied the bomb technicians during their initial sweeps of the building and stayed well into the night. The duty was voluntary, but nobody asked to be excluded. Fortunately, no further fire situations arose.

At about 10:36 p.m., a pipe bomb exploded as it was being lowered into the bomb disposal unit, causing no further injuries or damage. Bomb experts said the bombs were not well-crafted, and many did not go off as planned. If they had, the devastation would have been greater.

It took until late the next day, April 21, for most of the unexploded bombs to be cleared and the bodies to be removed from the school. In late afternoon, the unexploded bombs were taken to the disposal site in Golden, Colorado, and detonated.

On April 22, a duffel bag containing a 20-pound propane tank with an unexploded pipe bomb attached was found in the school cafeteria by police personnel, who were still in the building. The school was evacuated and the bomb squad called in (they had been released from the scene previously). It is important to note that the duffel bag was among several hundred bags and backpacks that had been checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, but because of the number of exploded devices in the school, the dogs were overwhelmed by the residue of powder and failed to alert to the sealed device. As a result of the oversight, each backpack then had to be hand-checked by bomb technicians.

Eighty law enforcement investigators worked on the case full time. The evidence was collected from the school, and the school was returned to the school district June 1.

AFTER THE INCIDENT

“What comes next?” after a major traumatic incident is a question that plagues firefighters across the country. Littleton Fire Department personnel tried to gather all available data from other agencies on coping with the aftermath of a large-scale incident. The plan was to create a document that might prove useful to other departments.

The first step the department took after the incident began to deescalate was to release all personnel directly involved in the incident. The message was that everyone had to go home. This is still a matter for debate. While most appreciated going home to family, several single firefighters ended up home alone with nobody to talk to about the experience.

The second step on the road to personnel`s emotional healing was a long series of critical incident stress debriefings (CISD). The department included secretaries and spouses as additional groups that needed debriefing as well as all staff.

As another avenue for counseling, a battalion chief called the city`s employee assistance provider and asked for a list of the best counselors for emotional trauma. Initially he was told, “All our counselors are the best,” but after further discussion, he was given a list of names of people specifically suited to the need.

Cards, letters, e-mails, and faxes came in from around the world. Every department communication was copied and distributed to all stations. In terms of healing, few things carry more weight than a “Good job” from other departments. Also, letting in the community-at-large to help heal turned out to be one of the best ideas. Visits from the President and the Vice President of the United States reminded the department and the community that they were not alone in the tragedy. Sharing the enormity of the burden with all who felt the pain served to further the healing.

Firefighters sought to do positive acts as a final form of healing. They sold T-shirts, pins, and posters and donated the proceeds to the healing fund. One collected flowers from the memorial and made small potpourri bundles to pass out to graduating seniors. Almost all the firefighters have kept in touch with their patients, forming a bond that will last for years to come.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

• Fire and EMS agencies need more training to work with SWAT teams, including training in unified command and multiagency commands (MACs).

• Accept the fact that the fire department will be very closely involved with most police and SWAT operations, and be prepared to operate safely in that environment. Police entered the building and surrounded the perimeter wearing bulletproof vests and ballistic helmets and carrying a variety of weapons. Firefighters were alongside them wearing fire department T-shirts and carrying medical kits. Fire and EMS agencies must purchase equipment suitable to working in such a dangerous and hostile environment. (Note: At one point in the incident, shots were being fired from the second-floor windows of the school toward the south parking lot. Police were returning fire, but firefighters in that location had inadequate protection.)

• The use of SWAT “paramedics” could have been extremely useful at this incident. This would have allowed earlier access to victims inside the building for treatment.

• More interagency–fire, EMS, and police–training is needed in many aspects of the job, including domestic terrorism and violence.

• Written procedures that define how joint operations will work together are needed. They must be thought out and orchestrated in advance and practiced regularly to work smoothly.

• You must establish a common incident management system. The police view of ICS is much different from the fire department`s understanding of incident command. While the words may be the same, the system is different. (The fire department may work with ICS daily, but police and SWAT usually do not.)

• Sprinkler activations in the school proved to have advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the sprinklers contained the resultant fires from the bomb detonations, preventing the incident from escalating into a major fire event. On the other hand, sprinklers drove smoke from the fires to the floor, obscuring the view of SWAT team members. Positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fans would have been beneficial in this case but were not utilized–firefighters were not cleared to enter the building because of concerns for their safety.

• Long-duration incidents can tax your battery supply. At this incident, radios began to “die,” and spare batteries had to be brought to the scene. Bring an adequate supply to the scene early on.

• Victims were found on different sides of the building because of their chosen escape routes and the size of the building. Mass-casualty supplies must be available with redundancy of supplies so that more than one triage area can be set up as needed, as was the case at this incident.

• It is important at a mass-casualty incident to get the injured to the right medical facility. Hospital bed counts and planned patient distribution, coupled with early notification to emergency rooms to expect critically injured patients, were also key to a successful response. Maintain constant contact with the hospitals to determine available bed space for certain levels of victim injury. This ensures patients are sent to the appropriate facility via the appropriate mode of transport.

• A major incident does not prevent other events from occurring in your jurisdiction, so it is important to provide adequate coverage to handle other incidents. This involves anything from 911 operators to emergency room bed space. (Note: During this incident, the Littleton Fire Department was called to respond to an odor investigation. The call turned out to be at the home of one of the shooters, Eric Harris. Responding firefighters found “live bombs with live triggers and lots of gas [gasoline].” It turned out that when the shooters were identified, sheriff`s deputies responded to their homes and discovered the “odor.”)

• You must plan for the self-initiated response of nearby resources. Primary and secondary staging areas are important. Train all agencies` units to go to staging and report in. The staging areas must be easily identifiable. Law enforcement personnel closing the perimeter at an incident must know where staging areas are so they can direct incoming units who do not know where to report. Send people to the secondary staging area to check in and stand by until they are needed at the primary staging area. In the incident command system, at an incident of this size a base should be set up to assemble available resources and equipment before they report to staging. This reduces chaos and congestion at staging.

• Effective communications must be a main focus of preparing for future operations. Police agencies did not have a common frequency. Fire agencies went to a FERN channel. Fire units had no direct radio communications with police units. Personnel had to resort to face-to-face communications in many cases. Agency representatives actually stood in a circle so that they could communicate with their units and coordinate with other agencies. (Note: Both the fire chief and sheriff told U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno that a solution to the communication/radio frequency problem must be a top priority and that federal assistance is needed.)

• The best view of the overall incident was carried live over various television networks via news helicopters. The fire personnel on- scene saw only a fraction of what the television viewers saw. Get TVs to the command post early on (four were needed at this incident).

• TV news coverage gave the shooters better information about police strategy and tactics than police would have liked. This increased the risk to all response personnel. TV helicopter crews and reporters admitted that they had been asked not to show certain things but that they did so anyway. Fortunately, the media could not see the most critical operations inside the school.

• Media coverage was a double-edged sword in another way. Although most of the coverage was favorable, some reporters dug into some very raw emotions to get a journalistic edge. Thus, be very selective about who from the department gives media interviews. Consider the psychological and emotional effects on the interviewees.

• The most important communication on the part of response personnel involved their calling home to advise their families they were okay. The families had been glued to the TV set, watching in horror as their loved ones conducted risky operations on live TV.

• Offer firefighters an alternative to going home so the natural stress debriefing process around the kitchen table can still take place.

Concerning stress debriefings, some accountability is needed to ensure personnel do not get overlooked for debriefing. Taking roll is not appropriate, so assign station officers to watch out for their own. Also, monitor the process itself: If several debriefings are going on at once, inexperienced debriefers may be in over their heads. Some debriefers let in people who did not belong there. Because of the overwhelming amount of postincident work involved, some debriefings were put off so long that they almost were not useful. Make debriefings a priority.

• There is simply no adequate training for an event such as the Columbine High School tragedy. Previous training and daily use of the incident command system and regular practice of the techniques involved in mass-casualty incidents were hugely beneficial. The bottom line is that doing the job well will be the biggest help in the recovery process almost more than any other single aspect. Everything that happens after the event will be based on the responders` performance during the incident.

Everyone is affected by such an event, whether personnel were directly involved, on standby, or even on vacation during the incident. How you handle the impact will largely determine the future of your organization. Following are key considerations of the Littleton Fire Department concerning members` long-term healing from this event:

• Communication on the upper levels and down through the ranks is an ongoing need for many weeks.

• Relieve personnel of duty and give them the option of going home or staying at the station.

• Critical incident stress debriefing is of great value to the majority of responders, and debriefings should be done quickly and repeatedly. However, no single method should be expected to “cure” everyone.

• Assign extra personnel early for additional department requirements. Call for help early and often.

• Support from the community, other agencies, and especially other fire departments plays a big role.

• Battalion chiefs looked into additional (and nontraditional) methods of healing for their shifts.

• The “visual aid” of a pin for all personnel to wear was offered and was quickly accepted by most.

• Since media coverage is a double-edged sword, the decision to keep responders away from reporters is felt to have been a good one.

• Department officers were given the task of recognizing when personnel were having difficulty and took on the responsibility of helping personnel get assistance.

For many responders, their lives have been changed forever. Some who were not there feel they should have been there. Some are still numb and may not yet feel the impact.

One thing to keep in mind is that this was a successful operation–everyone firefighters had a chance of saving was saved. Although three of the wounded were near death, aggressive prehospital care saved them.

Many aspects of the incident went well because of past lessons learned and practiced. Other aspects went well simply because of luck. Most went well because of the skill and dedication of the responders.

Paramedic Captain Brian Simpson, off-duty and at home seven houses away from the school, was notified of the shooting by neighbors and went to the school immediately, as he was expecting his daughter Nikki home from there. He found two fellow paramedics attending to five blood-spattered children lying on the ground. With thoughts of his own daughter, he went to work.

His first patient was a boy with an arterial bleed shot through the knee. Scrambling for supplies, Simpson used a stethoscope as a tourniquet to start an IV, all the while trying to keep the other kids nearby calm by talking to them. He then treated a shotgun blast to the hand of a young girl and then turned to a boy who originally was thought just to have splinters around his head and neck. The splinters turned out to be shotgun pellets, and the boy began to seize. Paramedics maintained his C-spine with towels, started an IV, and restrained him as best they could with limited supplies and personnel. The boy was airlifted out as critical. “It was just `plug and go` medicine at that point,” Simpson later stated.

He attended to two more children, with minor injuries, while waiting for word about his own daughter. Hours went by, and his biggest fear was that Nikki might not even be alive. Simpson had a strong urge to just “get into the fire truck and drive it straight into the school.” He was grateful to a lieutenant on the scene who kept him calm. “It`s different when it`s your own kid,” he said.

Nikki was in the second to last room to be evacuated, hiding in the science hall just a few doors down from where a teacher bled to death. She is recovering, but it isn`t easy. During her entrapment, she wrote a farewell letter to her parents and a poem about the ordeal.

Simpson still follows the recovery of his victims and struggles to believe he made a difference. He worries that he should have known the seriousness of the injury to the boy with the pellets. But considering the circumstances, “we did a hell of a job,” he said.

A 20-year veteran of the Littleton Fire Department, Firefighter Jerry Losasso thought he`d seen it all. He went into an area to pull out three children and ended up with gunfire all around him. “It reminded me of Vietnam,” he said later. He positioned the rescue vehicle to act as a shield between the injured children and the shooters. Originally thinking they`d been cleared for entry, it was now too late to turn back without taking the injured with them. After taking a pulse, he noted that one of the victims was already dead. With the help of other firefighters, the injured were carried to the waiting rescues and rushed to hospitals.

While it occurs to him now that he easily could have been killed, at the time he said he was simply focused on the job that needed to be done. “We just needed to get those kids out,” he said.

John Aylward has been a paramedic with the Littleton Fire Department for less than a year, but his military background made him no stranger to the sound of gunfire. He was the driver of Rescue 11, staged on the street in front of the school, when he received the report that the area had been secured and multiple patients were down. As he approached the school, he noticed police crouched behind cars with guns drawn, and he began to wonder how “secured” the area really was. Seeing a figure lying on the ground, he angled the rescue in as close as he could. As his partner ran for the stretcher, he went to the victim. At first he was not sure if she was alive, but when he touched her, he heard her say softly, “Help me.”

As he picked her up, he heard gunshots and felt glass shards land on him. He said he was so focused on getting his victim to safety, he never feared for his own life. Certain she was dying, he carried her to the rescue and the cover it provided.

The only other thing she said to him was her name, but a bond was formed. He visited her the next day and continues to see her often. Even though he returned to the scene afterward to treat other critical victims, he followed the one girl`s progress closely. Is the bond still there so much time later? “Oh yeah, lifelong friends,” he said.

Lieutenant John Schefcik was assigned as command to one of the triage areas and was in charge of triage and transport for 11 injured students. He felt all went well with the four critical, four serious, and three walking wounded victims, but he was frustrated by other aspects of the scene. He found that communications between so many agencies were difficult, and he was kept busy coordinating overall patient care for so many seriously wounded.

He was in the midst of an event highly charged with emotion. At one point he saw three kids in camouflage clothing walking toward the school. He pointed them out to police, who gave chase with guns drawn. Then there were reports of armed kids driving by in cars. On top of that, he was triaging a number of seriously injured children.

After the incident, Schefcik turned his TV off for three days and stayed away from the press. He still tracks the progress of his healing patients. He credits the outstanding job of the medics he worked with. “It went well,” he said. “But with over 50 years of experience there, how could it not?”

Having been on the department for only 11 months, Ryan Knutsen is the youngest member of the Littleton Fire Department. He was on Engine 11 that day, an EMT with limited experience in critical injuries. One of his most vivid recollections of the incident was large groups of students running toward the fire truck, as if it represented safety to all of them.

He made two long trips to the hospital that day, both times with critically injured children. Mainly he assisted with IVs and bandaging, and after that his job was just to keep talking to the victims and provide psychological reassurance.

Initially, the firefighters had been told to take off their uniform shirts so they could be distinguished from the police. After his last run to the hospital, Knutsen noticed his T-shirt was soaked with blood. He went to a nearby house and was given another T-shirt. The Columbine neighborhood was to become known for its kindness and generosity.

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Students, escorted by SWAT team members, are shown fleeing Columbine High School. Students used any exits they could find, which led to confusion as to where the gunmen were and how many students were still trapped in the building. (Photo by Hal Stoelzle/Rocky Mountain News/SYGMA.)

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SWAT team members enter the front door of the school. Littleton Fire Department Rescue 13, one of the units that pulled right up to the school and then pulled back because of the close proximity to the gunfight, shuttled victims to primary triage. (Photo by Hal Stoelzle/Rocky Mountain News/SYGMA.)

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Primary triage had the largest number of victims (11 people: four critical, four serious, and three walking wounded). It was scattered across five yards in a residential area. (Photo taken from video footage courtesy of Dan Steffes, Channel 2 News, Denver.)

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Engine 11 was driven by a SWAT team member who received a crash course on driving the engine from fire department personnel. The engine was one of the fire vehicles used as “barricades” to protect responders and fleeing students near the building. (Photo taken from video footage courtesy of Dan Steffes, Channel 2 News, Denver.)

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Firefighter-paramedics on-scene kept in close contact with area hospitals to ensure that patient numbers and severity of injuries matched the facilities receiving the victims. This enabled victims to receive the prompt medical attention some critically needed on arrival at the hospital. (Photo by Steven R. Nickerson/SYGMA)

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Firefighter-paramedics on-scene kept in close contact with area hospitals to ensure that patient numbers and severity of injuries matched the facilities receiving the victims. This enabled victims to receive the prompt medical attention some critically needed on arrival at the hospital. (photo by Linda McConnell/Rocky Mountain News/SYGMA.)

MARK WALLACE is chief of the Golden (CO) Fire Department. He is the former chief of the Sheridan (CO) Fire Department and past president of the Denver Metro Fire Chiefs Association and the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association. Wallace has a bachelor`s degree in business administration and a master`s degree in public administration. He is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Fire Engineering, 1998).

SUSAN BRIGHTMIRE is a lieutenant and acting public information officer for the Littleton (CO) Fire Department. She began her fire service career in 1980 as a wildland firefighter for the National Park Service in California. Brightmire joined the Littleton Fire Department in 1990 and became a paramedic in 1991 and a lieutenant in 1997. She has been in charge of public education for five years.

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