James Thalman

James Thalman


By James Thalman

The mass shooting and bomb blast at a huge movie theater complex south of Salt Lake City on Oct. 23 was as fake as a Halloween beard. But the two-hour multi-agency field exercise still managed to provide a reality check for handling the mother of all emergencies—the mass casualty incident.

MCIs—mass shooting incidents in particular—have nearly tripled their five per year rate in 2008, according to figures from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In 2013, there were 14 as of October.

The number of MCI mass shooting drills have jumped as well during the past five years. Emergency responder agencies that have usually held one mock disaster drill a year are now staging full-dress, multi-agency MCI practices at least twice a year, with some putting on three or more.

Utah, for example, holds one large MCI drill per year for its “Big One” event—a massive earthquake. Since 2011, a Utah coalition of public and private emergency services response agencies have been conducting almost one drill per month. The October drill was one of six mass shooting drills in 2013.

“Mass shootings and other man-made, high-count injury incidents aren’t the big one, but they’ve now moved into the ‘not if, but when’ category in every emergency response agency I know of,” said Jack Meersman, head trainer for Gold Cross Ambulance and dispatch team leader for the mock MCI at the movie theater.

Center stage at the October mock MCI was a mass shooting by a lone gunman who also detonated a bomb. Seven people were killed immediately, and 40 seriously injured. The shooter fired his final fatal shot at himself. The training was scripted close to the real-life shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012, and was to test how well area emergency responders coordinate efforts during such events now dubbed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as “low-tech terrorism.”

A shooter in a crowded and confined place can be very effective at producing the injury and mayhem he is looking for, all without much funding, training, or planning, said Shawn Messinger, a former SWAT team leader and a consultant with Priority Dispatch Corp.™, during a mass shooting discussion at the NAVIGATOR 2013 conference for emergency dispatchers. “Responding to them, on the other hand, requires all the coordination, support, funding, and planning emergency services agencies can muster.”

Mustering for the Salt Lake Valley drill was every police, fire, and medical emergency services agency from the state’s four most populated counties, which are home to nearly two million residents. Two emergency transport helicopters from the two main trauma centers were involved as well as the Utah Air and Utah National Guard.

Reality suspended

The 8 a.m. start was an obviously non-crowded theater time of day, but the group of 60 or so volunteers, some profusely bleeding red poster paint from their wounds, managed to give off a three-star performance during triage. Some died at the scene, passing away from their injuries as other victims tried in vain to help. Others simply just got in the way while some did their best to act out a situation they hope they never go through for real.

A half hour earlier, a team of five dispatchers picked to handle drill communications started going over the scenario and discussing routine channel assignments, and possible communication problems that could come up as the drill got into full gear.

What wasn’t routine was their location—some 100 yards away outside in the theater’s parking lot. Their console was a mobile unit mounted in the back of an SUV.

The handling of communications from the scene was to get the calltakers out of their comfort zone.

“Standing out here in the cold, we’re already there even before we start,” joked Beth Todd, the most experienced dispatcher in the group.

Having the dispatchers at the scene was Meersman’s idea. “Dispatchers are rarely, if ever, at the scene of any emergency,” he said. “We thought it might be an instructive way to broaden their perspectives and show them what first responders are actually dealing with at a scene they just sent them to.”

At 8:10, things got earnest. Dispatcher Jennifer Davidson coded the shots fired as a 135-D-2, according to the Police Priority Dispatch System™ used at Davidson’s home call center, Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC).

Davidson and Lori Hintz, a dispatcher at Salt Lake International Airport, are experienced dispatchers, but Hintz is the first from the city’s airport staff to be part of handling a multi-injury incident, real or staged.

Updates of position and location of vehicles were handed off seamlessly as dozens of vehicles came and went. Although the communications between police, fire, and medical was practically nonstop during the 90-minute rehearsal, things were almost too quiet at the dispatch station.

“There was a glitch or two, such as some channel jumping,” Meersman said. That’s when someone breaks into a radio channel not dedicated to his or her specific agency.

“Things can get really hairy in a few seconds if people start jumping, he said. “Communications channels must be established up front and must stay as assigned, if at all possible,” he said, adding that there are dozens of examples in real-life MCIs where dispatchers maintaining control over the radio channels prevented more injuries to victims and even serious harm to rescuers than had they not done so.

As teams headed to “hot wash” meetings to discuss how the drill went, the dispatchers said the drill succeeded in giving them a new perspective.

“I’m getting a new appreciation for what people in the field are dealing with,” Lori Hintz said, who is a dispatcher at Salt Lake International Airport. “We have an idea of these things just like everybody else who watches the news. But it’s good to get an actual picture first-hand.”

They all agreed, however, that being able to watch events would be a distraction to dispatching, not a help, in a real event, saying they wouldn’t be able to concentrate as well on what callers were telling them.

Davidson said she remains in favor of the ears-only dispatching.

“It does help to watch how something like this would play out, but if we’re watching as well as listening in a real event, we’d no doubt be less effective,” she said. “Still, I’d recommend any dispatcher do one of these. It gives a new mental picture of what’s going on when there is a real MCI.”

Todd said that the correct number and type of vehicles were dispatched efficiently and people quickly got to where they needed to be first. That isn’t likely in an actual incident because emotions start to run high in an MCI, she said.

VECC dispatcher Angela Wiggins said lessons from every drill she’s participated in carry over into the routine run of calls.

“Training is training, and the more you get, the better you’ll get through any incident,” she said. “There’s no better confidence boost than telling folks, ‘It’s just like what we did in training.’”