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Lessons from Columbine

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image Jefferson County Sheriff's Command Post at the Columbine High School Shooting, April 19, 1999.

The Impact of Governance, Operations and Technology on Critical Emergency Response.

By Chuck Burdick

I personally roll my eyes every time I hear a news reporter or politician display total disbelief that public safety agencies cannot talk to each other on the same channel. The fact is, up until recently that is exactly how we wanted it.

We all wanted our own frequencies and were very protective of who we would authorize to "crystal up" on them. Radios were purchased based on price and/or brand loyalty rather than any regional communication plan, and the word "interoperability" wasn't a part of the public safety vocabulary. "Mutual Aid" consisted of a handshake over lunch at the Metro Chiefs' monthly meeting, agreeing to send some units in to help if they were ever needed. Phone systems were simple and unsophisticated. Dispatchers tracked calls on punch cards and referred to a card file to determine run responses. Police and fire had defined roles and responsibilities, and everyone loved firefighters.

These days are long gone. In light of events like Oklahoma City, Columbine, September 11, and Hurricane Katrina, communities around the country have scrambled to get a grasp on a broad array of communications issues and solve problems surrounding emergency response. Adding to the mix is the ever-evolving technology, and all of the "must-have" bells and whistles.


The world has changed, and public safety agencies must now focus on how to escalate from normal day-to-day communication activities to levels never before imagined. So, where does one begin? The answer is relatively straightforward. It has to start with governance, the practice of defining and documenting relationships between responders before an incident occurs. It includes establishing intergovernmental agreements that bring public safety agencies together to develop operational plans and share resources such as facilities, radio systems, and information technologies. In short, governance consists of writing the rules on how agencies will work together, responsibilities, authority, liability, accountability, training and cost.

Operations and Technology

After governance is operations, the preplanning, training and development of procedures needed to address a critical incident (such as an active shooter on campus). How a public safety agency escalates from its normal day-to-day communications activities to a crisis (in addition to handling the daily activity) is important. With the governance and operations plans in place, technology is then used to complement and enhance communications and response based on the operational plan. The technology supports the operations.

To examine and understand these three components -- governance, operations and technology -- let us take a critical look at the lessons learned at an incident that touched the nation and me personally, the Columbine High School massacre.

At the time of the Columbine incident, I was the Operations Chief for the Littleton Fire Department, the lead fire and EMS agency that responded to the incident. I arrived with the first units and operated as the liaison between fire and law enforcement in a Unified Incident Command System. The complexity of the incident was staggering, with many obstacles to overcome. Some were handed to us by the shooters, some were of our own doing, and many were based on the perceived notion, "It'll never happen to us."

"Several Shots Fired, Columbine High School"

The first phone call came on a beautiful spring morning. Initially dispatched as an explosion, public safety personnel were suddenly thrust into the nation's most deadly school shooting. In a period of eight hours, nearly 1,000 first responders from 47 different law enforcement, fire, EMS, state and federal agencies responded. Coordination of efforts and resources was critical in this time-sensitive operation, which was complicated by a myriad of radio systems. At the height of the incident, nearly 250 students were unaccounted for; as many as eight shooters were suspected of wandering the school and its grounds; there was an active fire in the cafeteria; reports of the smell of natural gas and unexploded bombs proliferated; intelligence reports indicated the possibility of backpacks with explosives set with motion sensitive time-delay triggers; and hundreds of frantic phone calls from students inundated 911 systems with reports of students and teachers being held hostage along with reports of numerous injuries -- some critical.

The Shooters

For nearly a year, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned an elaborate plot to kill hundreds of students, faculty and first responders. Boasting they were going to dwarf the Oklahoma City bombing, their goal was to become more famous than Timothy McVeigh. On April 20, 1999, at 11:19 a.m., after their bombs that were placed in the cafeteria failed to ignite, the two shooters donned black trench coats, loaded up their pockets with homemade grenades, grabbed their duffle bags of bombs, ammunition and guns, and headed from the parking lot toward the school. Before entering, they shot six students just outside of the cafeteria, killing two and critically injuring four. Throwing a pipe bomb onto the roof, they entered the school, separated, and proceeded through the school throwing pipe bombs, grenades and shooting at and over the heads of fleeing students. Their goal at this point was to find and kill the School Resource Officer (SRO) and any other threat, including the principal. After a short period of time they entered the library together where they shot and killed ten students and injured twelve others. They then proceeded down the stairs just outside of the library to the cafeteria and attempted to set off the bombs that had failed earlier. After only partially igniting one of them they returned up the stairs, headed to the science wing and attempted to start a fire in a room housing chemicals and other supplies. The fire was quickly extinguished by some students who were hiding in the room. Dylan and Eric then opened fire on fire department paramedics who were attempting to rescue victims outside of the cafeteria. Law enforcement immediately returned fire providing cover fire for the rescuers, who successfully extracted the students under a hail of bullets and flying glass. Shortly after noon, Eric and Dylan committed suicide inside the library. In total, twelve students, one teacher and the two shooters perished.


Just minutes after the first explosion of a pipe bomb on the roof of Columbine High School, the entire 911 phone system at the Jefferson County PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) became overwhelmed. During the first hour and forty minutes, 119 calls were received via 911, with an additional 114 received in the subsequent three hours. In addition, non-emergency lines quickly reached capacity. These numbers reflect a 2,000 percent increase in the average call volume. In addition, many calls were taken by surrounding agencies when the county's system reached capacity.

Adding to the call volume were the calls from the media persistently seeking any and all information they could get, even to the point of calling 911 knowing they would get through to someone. Within the first 12 hours, 339 phone calls were received from the news media alone. These calls continued for weeks at an alarming level from around the world.

All phone systems were impacted. As soon as the first media report, conventional phone circuits became completely overloaded in the immediate area of Columbine, and all of the Denver Metro area experienced similar problems once the story broke nationally as family and friends called to assure that loved ones were accounted for and safe.

Immediately, cell sites reached overload, rendering cell phones virtually useless by first responders. Initially, most of the cell traffic was from students and faculty who were affected. Even when COWs (Cell On Wheels) were brought in, they too reached capacity very quickly, as news media took up a large portion by locking into a connection with their news room and maintaining it for hours.

The primary public safety radio systems quickly exceeded their capacity for both the sheriff and the fire department. In addition, interoperability with incoming mutual aid agencies was almost nonexistent for law enforcement and marginal for fire and EMS. The lack of interoperability between law enforcement and fire required human repeaters to be used for critical communications between SWAT and paramedics. The full spectrum of radio frequency types was represented -- from VHF to UHF, 800 analog to 800 digital. Additionally, many units with common frequencies were not utilized because the agencies referred to them by a different name or frequency position. Out of necessity, much of the communication was conducted face-to-face or via runners.

Although a brand new state-of-the-art trunked radio system was operational, the transition from the analog VHF system had not yet taken place. Unknowingly, agencies spent valuable time looking to this new system to solve the interoperability issues instead of formulating a communication plan based on the existing system. Building a communication plan is no small task. It involves taking inventory of and analyzing available resources and allocating these resources in a manner that best fulfills the tactical objectives. The inventory of resources includes the backbone system type, system limitations, number and type of radios, manufacture, frequencies, channel or talk group alignment, spare batteries, chargers, and interface devices. In short, the plan had to be created on the fly in the case of Columbine, and the results were less than satisfactory.

Making Sense of Chaos

Without question, the hardest obstacle faced that day, both at the scene and at the various communication centers that were involved, was dealing with the tremendous amount of information. Information was coming from phone calls both inside and outside of the school. Students were relaying information to law enforcement officers and firefighters. Parents, friends and other jurisdictions were calling to relay information they had received from students barricaded inside the school. School officials also had information they were receiving from staff members over their own two-way radio system. From every direction, command staff was bombarded, and much of the incoming information was out of sequence, unclear and conflicting. Making sense of it became extremely difficult. For example, in the first six minutes, law enforcement construed that there were six to eight shooters based on the information they received. They had reports of a shooter on the soccer field, bombs being thrown onto the roof of the school, shooters in the cafeteria, shooters in the library, gunmen in trench coats with shotguns walking the hallways and an officer taking fire from a shooter with a high powered rifle. In the end, as we know, there were only the two shooters, Dylan and Eric, randomly and rapidly moving throughout the school firing their guns, throwing grenades and setting off pipe bombs.

The Incidents Inside the Incident

Faced with a well-covered media incident, SWAT teams and police officers responded from all over Colorado, and as far away as Nebraska. Along with the requested resources, a large number of well intentioned self-dispatched units arrived. Very quickly, hundreds of emergency responders began to assemble, leading to a significant public relations nightmare. The large contingency of media on the scene witnessed SWAT teams arriving, donning equipment and waiting for deployment orders, which quickly raised questions by uninformed reporters as to why the SWAT teams were not actually in the school. In reality, there were three to four SWAT teams in the school at a time -- something far from common practice.

The abundance and congestion of vehicles led to an additional challenge. Every law enforcement officer, fire and police staff member, as well as all of the school district officials, parked their car wherever they could find a vacant piece of ground. The logistics chief was suddenly faced with the almost insurmountable challenge of keeping an access lane open for the ambulances. One very diligent sheriff's officer had to be assigned solely to keeping an access lane clear. Only in the post-incident critique were tow trucks identified, a resource that if realized before would have been a great asset.

The post-incident critique also identified the need for an incident base (not to be confused with staging), defined as a location at the incident where the primary logistical functions are coordinated and administered. The incident base should be established far enough from the incident as not to impede in incident operations, yet close enough that additional resources can be dispatched in a matter of minutes. Here, units log in, get briefed, and ready their equipment for deployment. Discipline is a major part of the briefing. Units are given their exact assignment, who they are to report to, instructions on what not to do (e.g., "freelancing") and what to do when they are released from duty (report back to base for release from the incident).

Incident Command System (ICS)

Incident Command is, essentially, management of the scene. The importance of a routine Incident Command System (ICS), in which every player on the scene fully understands and follows ICS, cannot be overemphasized and must be a part of every discipline that makes up the public safety community.

The fire service in the early 1970s borrowed the term ICS from the military to describe their dynamic organizational structure that could be adapted for the simplest, routine incident and to one as complex as managing a major wildfire.

As part of the routine at Columbine,the first-arriving fire department unit established Incident Command for fire and EMS, as did law enforcement, albeit independently. It immediately became apparent that coordination of efforts was critical, and a Unified Incident Command System was ultimately established to bring together fire/EMS and law enforcement.

Lessons Learned

From an emergency response perspective, the magnitude of this incident immediately went from normal day-to-day communication activities to a crisis in a matter of seconds. In reviewing the tenets of governance, operations and technology, it becomes clear how critical it is that they are properly formulated and integrated in advance. It is important to consider the full lifecycle of the technologies and infrastructures that support emergency communication operations. As well, each agency should be certain of the proper planning, implementation and integration of technologies (radio, portable electronic command boards, CAD, RMS, mapping, E-911, telephony, AVL, CCTV and wireless devices) and their interoperability across multiple agencies during an incident.

Unfortunately, no community is immune to a catastrophic event. It can happen at any time and can stretch a community's resources beyond its limits. However, through planning, preparation, training and drills, problem areas can be identified and solutions developed, in advance. Coupled with the necessary technology, interoperability and operational models, a public safety organization can be better prepared to face an event head-on.

About the Author

Chuck Burdick served the Littleton Fire Department for 25 years, starting as a firefighter and advancing through the ranks before finally retiring as the Operations Chief. He responded to the initial alarm at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 -- one of the most horrific acts of terror in U.S. history. Burdick operated in the critical command role as liaison between fire and law enforcement in a Unified Incident Command System. Today, Chuck works for iXP Corporation, a leading public safety consulting and integration firm that solves mission-critical emergency response problems for public safety and security organizations. This article first appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of the Campus Law Enforcement Journal. Reprinted here by permission of the author.


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