March 19, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
He was young, had worked in a sandwich shop, and, fortunately for the thousands of Christmas shoppers at the crowded Portland, Ore., mall, his semi-automatic rifle jammed.
The possible interval the breakdown destined between shots might be the reason 22-year-old Jacob Roberts took his own life, ending the apparent random attack that left two dead and one wounded.
“As bad as it was, it could have been worse,” said Ryan DesJardin, technical manager, Clackamas County (Ore.) Communications. “When anybody dies violently it is a tragedy, and I send my condolences to the families. But we’re lucky that more people weren’t killed.”
DesJardin was off duty on late Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 11, when Roberts entered the busy mall wearing a load-bearing vest over his darkly colored clothing and carrying an AR-15 and several magazines full of ammunition. A white hockey mask covered his face.
According to police reports, Roberts opened fire in the second-level area in front of the Macy’s department store facing the food court, fatally wounding Cindy Ann Yuille, 54, a hospice nurse, and Steven Mathew Forsyth, 45, who ran a custom coaster-making business at the mall. A third victim, 15-year-old Kristina Shevchenko, was shot at an unknown location, but was able to make it outside the mall on her own. Once Roberts’ automatic weapon supposedly jammed, he hurried past the food court, descended a service stairwell, and shot himself. His body was found approximately 12 minutes after the shooting started.
Police and mall officials attributed the malfunctioning gun and a one-day training seminar held the past spring that was given by Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies for the limited number of casualties. According to local news reports, police had staged active shooter scenarios for the mall’s unarmed security staff and provided advice to mall tenants for how to respond in such an emergency.
Clackamas County Communications Operations (CCOM) Manager Mark Spross also credited his staff during the desperate situation.
“My staff did amazing work,” he said. “They had so much being thrown at them at one time for a very long time, and they just kept at it. The center was as calm as I’ve ever seen it. There was extreme focus. They were operating as if they were one person. Incredible.”
Spross was paged when the first call came in at 3:29 p.m. and responded to the dispatch floor.
Six dispatchers assigned to the police and fire radios jumped into action, informing emergency responders that an active shooter incident was reportedly in progress. Within minutes, every single line at the center was in use.
“The cell trunks were saturated,” said DesJardin, who was paged and on his way to the center moments after the shooting started. “We’re a mid-size agency [six dispatchers/shift, maximum staffing level] but it would be difficult for most centers to staff up 24 hours [a day] for this type of incident.”
Within five minutes, 50 calls were in the primary calltaker’s queue. The number doubled less than five minutes later, according to Spross, who compiled the data shortly after the incident in anticipation of media questioning.
“We had one caller who was a witness to the suspect but most people called asking what they should do,” Spross said. “We couldn’t provide a lot of information and all we could tell them was to find a safe spot if evacuation was impossible. Given the situation, the majority of our callers sounded really calm.”
The initial response of sending a single medic and two engines quickly accelerated as callers revealed the scene of a lone gunman running at large and people scrambling frantically for the mall’s exits or taking cover. The first deputies arrived within one minute of the first radio alert, with a massive ensuing call-out bringing more than 100 police from federal, state, and local agencies.
Along with Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department’s regional partners, Clackamas Fire District #1 arrived, along with members of the Portland Police Bureau, Oregon State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
9-1-1 calls continued well past an incident that lasted 12 minutes between the time Roberts started shooting and police discovered his body in the stairwell. Incoming calls saturated cell tower lines, pushing overflow to nearby centers, including the City of Portland communications center.
The volume relating to the shooting plus other emergencies going on—such as traffic accidents—activated an all-call alert to communication staff. Fortunately, the timing near shift change meant dispatchers were already on their way to work.
“But it didn’t take the all-call to get people here,” Spross said. “Staff dropped what they were doing once hearing early reports coming over the radio [media].”
Within an hour of the first call, all 14 seats were filled, and those who didn’t get a seat helped out in other ways. In addition to answering calls, crews monitored the two police and one fire net set up at the scene and took turns at calltaking and dispatch. Spross concentrated on coordinating the situation—notification to other agencies, assistance to supervisors, and emergency management—and making sure staff was able to stay in control despite the intense stress.
Two hours into the incident, Dispatcher Brenda Fahey jumped into her car for the 20-minute drive to the CCOM from the Portland City Dispatch Center. She picked up coffee and pastries, compensating for the food breaks no one could take.
Fahey is a member of Portland City’s Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team, and this was the first time in her 11 years of working in communications to offer support away from her home center. Although the CCOM appeared calm when she arrived, she had Spross’ permission to assess signs of stress in a group of people that commonly denies they’re bothered by what’s going on.
“If someone is crying or looking distracted, we’re trained to help diffuse those emotions,” she said. “It’s all very confidential. We talk to the individual to see what can be done. It might mean suggesting the person goes home or, at least, takes a break.”
The “in the moment” CISM counseling is followed up the next day; if the stress continues, the CISM member will suggest referral to a specialist.
Once the incident ends, and the pace settles down, that’s when stress can really raise its ugly head. Spross compared the aftermath to driving in a car on a freeway while mindful of a tornado bearing down on your path.
“The tornado passes and you’re out of danger,” he said. “You’re tense. The situation is over but the body reacts.”
Since the time lag for stress, when it does occur, can vary from the same day to days later and affect even those not present during the incident, the CCOM offered debriefings for anyone at work or not.
“Everyone had a connection to what was going on,” Spross said. “I don’t care where they were at the time. When things like this happen, everyone is affected.”
The shooting was the largest incident the center had handled both in terms of people involved and call volume. An estimated 10,000 people were at the mall at the start of the incident, and between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., calltakers answered 365 combined cell and landline 9-1-1 calls.
Two days later, a lone gunman killed 26 people—six adults and 20 children between the ages of 6 and 10—at a grade school across the country.
“The second shooting made our shooting hit home for a second time,” Fahey said. “We can only imagine how those dispatchers were feeling. Bad things like this affect our entire community.”
A line of silver and red stars offering words of support for retailers and shoppers were hanging from the glass railing near the Clackamas Town Center food court when it reopened for business on December 14. The stars were available for customers to sign and officials are reportedly considering a permanent memorial.