Learning from the Parkland, FL shooting – Communication breaks down in a crisis

With all the investigations, reviews, lawsuits, and committees looking at the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School it is unlikely that an official report will be released anytime soon. In the Miami Herald article Seconds mattered: How the response at Parkland went wrong in 11 minutes there is a clear analysis of the known events during the shooting.  The take away for all of us should be that while all the so called ‘recommended’ security and safety enhancements were in place during the chaos of the event nothing really mattered.  Insufficient information was available for police in the 6 minutes during the killing for them to respond effectively.  The confusion of these events is predictable but we are applying the same measures in the aftermath that don’t address the need for quick and accurate notification to the police while simultaneously alerting building occupants of a threat.

While a large portion of this article focuses on the police response there are several salient quotes that could easily be overlooked. Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. “It’s important to stop (attackers) as quickly as possible.” The number one thing police are taught is to stop the killing.  Disregard every other concern, including their personal safety, and confront the shooter.  In order for this to work in a large building or multi-building campus we need precise information on where police are needed.  Phone calls to 911 repeatedly fail to provide this information in a timely or accurate manner.  11 people were dead in under 2 minutes at Parkland on the first floor.  The average 911 call takes this long just to ascertain the nature of the threat and the address without providing detailed information.  A notification system can do this in seconds while also alerting building occupants, staff and students.

The confusion of responding officers was made worse by bad information. Reports of fireworks near the football field and the limitations of a radio system that only allows one person to talk at a time slowed police response.  The responding officers were informed of a threat on a 45 acres campus but not initially given specific building, floor or room numbers until after they were on scene.  This delayed the response.  Police radios are ineffective when dispatch, officers, commanders, and multi agency responders are all trying to provide or receive information.  Garbled noise is heard when two people attempt to talk at the same time.  A school emergency notification system, like SafeDefend, can pinpoint down to the room number where police are needed.  This information can be transmitted in seconds to everyone.  The fact that the first officer in the building was 11 minutes after the shooting and 5 minutes after the shooter had fled the building is common in this type of incident.

In the Parkland incident the shooting started before the fire alarm added to the confusion. The gunpowder and ceiling tile dust activated the alarm.  If a teacher had the ability to quickly activate a school emergency notification system and alarm inside a classroom the upper floors at a minimum would have heard a hostile intruder alarm before the fire alarm.  Teachers would then have been able to avoid the casualties that resulted from leaving the classrooms on the upper floors.  Most likely those deaths on the second and third floors could have been avoided if the school was put on lock down within seconds of the shooting starting.  An alarm system can do this for our schools.

Communication and information flow are critical in a crisis. Expecting staff to make emergency phone calls or use the public-address system while dodging bullets is ludicrous.   Unfortunately, this remains the go to protocol for most of schools in the country.  What is needed is a single step activation system to put the school on lockdown and notify emergency responders in seconds.  Until this becomes a priority the casualty counts will continue to be higher than necessary.

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