By Robby Bergerson
What began as a quiet Sunday morning on May 17, 2015, in Waco, Texas, ended as one of the deadliest days in the city’s history, the Twin Peaks Biker Shootout. Several lessons learned from the incident would likely prove invaluable if you were to have a similar mass-casualty incident (MCI) in your jurisdiction.
At around 12:30 p.m., a reported shooting occurred at the Twin Peaks restaurant in the Central Texas Marketplace shopping center where two rival motorcycle biker gangs (the Bandidos Motorcycle Club and the Cossacks Motorcycle Club) had convened for a meeting. The end result was 28 gunshot patients with nine fatalities. The incident occurred in a major shopping center where several side-by-side national chain restaurants were occupied with Sunday lunch-goers.
Dispatch and Arrival
At 12:40 p.m., Waco Fire Department (WFD) Dispatch assigned a single-engine company (Engine 9) and a self-assigned chief officer (Chief 3) to an initial call of a shooting. Unclear initial information exchanged between police and fire dispatchers left out critical details regarding the magnitude of what had unfolded. This included that a police presence surveilling the meeting of the bikers had witnessed the violence.
On arrival, the responding battalion chief requested additional units. The WFD response eventually was three engines, one truck, and three chief officers as well as multiple ambulances from the local private ambulance company.
Multiple Patients and High Tension
Law enforcement personnel from nearly every agency in the area were on site securing the scene and protecting the responders treating the injured. Patients were scattered throughout a large area—inside the restaurant, outside in the immediate parking lot, and in nearby parking areas. Because WFD upgraded the incident by one unit at a time over a 43-minute period, a citywide tone was never sounded, as is practice for major assignments. This meant that the majority of WFD stations had no idea that a significant incident was unfolding. Even without the need for additional units on scene, this information would have been valuable because of the potential for retaliation-related incidents in other areas of the city as word of what had occurred spread across social media.
Bikers from around the state began to descend on Waco, increasing tensions all over the city throughout the day. Throughout the incident, firefighters were faced with understandably upset bikers from both sides of the original skirmish. Plainclothed police officers with rifles added to the confusion on scene, as it was not immediately clear who were law enforcement and who were biker gang members during triage and treatment operations. The uncertainty created tremendous stress for firefighters on scene.
The incident location was immediately across a divided highway from the Level II trauma center, clearly visible from the scene, aiding in rapid ambulance transport and turnaround times. Firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel treated and transported injured persons as they encountered them. As firefighters handled the MCI, supplies began to run low because of the severity and number of injuries. In time, all the injured persons were transported to area hospitals for treatment.
While the legal system dealt with the criminal aspects of the incident, WFD examined the incident and had several lessons learned that led to procedural changes. Some of the opportunities for improvement identified included a lack of a unified command among agencies, little to no communications among agencies, and piecemealing resources to the scene that slowed the response of additional resources.
In looking at the incident critically, the lessons learned produced the following changes for WFD:
- Implementation of modular alarms, including an EMS Task Force assignment (three companies and a one battalion chief), along with standard greater alarms to supplement the initial response using standardized assignments (not just for fire calls). As these are now considered major responses, such an assignment would also alert all 13 fire stations with a citywide tone, ensuring that adequate medical supplies and personnel would arrive quickly instead of playing catch-up by requesting resources one by one.
- Work with local law enforcement and the EMS transportation contractor on the use of unified command through joint training and meetings. This now includes tabletop and field exercises that address on-scene operations for mass-violence events.
- EMS provider ambulances now report by radio on arrival to the fire department incident commander using the assigned fire frequency for all major incidents, eliminating freelancing and working under a single incident command structure. This allows fire and EMS resources to better establish patient collection points and use the 3 Ts (Triage, Treatment, and Transport) more effectively, ensuring resources are managed efficiently.
One of the biggest takeaways from this incident was the need for communication before such an incident. Even the most well-thought-out plans will be stressed when an MCI involving violence occurs.
The highest-ranking fire and police officials on duty will likely oversee your jurisdiction during the first, or at least the initial, operational period. For this reason, build relationships prior to an event so that all parties have a full understanding of the capabilities and operations of the involved agencies.
Robby Bergerson, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is deputy chief of emergency operations for the Waco (TX) Fire Department. He has a master of liberal studies degree in public administration, a B.S. degree in organizational leadership, and an A.A.S. degree in fire services administration. He has numerous fire service certifications, including as an EMT, and has earned Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence.