By Chief Tony Pustizzi (ret.), Coral Spring (FL) PD
EDITOR’S NOTE: On the heels of the Nashville school shooting and the similar tragedies we’ve seen, active threat response has remained a pivotal topic in discussions on training, policy, leadership and individual officer performance. Chief Tony Pustizzi oversaw the Coral Springs, FL PD at the time of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida in 2018. He and his officers played an extremely significant role in the response to that attack. Here, Chief Pustizzi shares his unique front-line perspective on that incident and details valuable lessons learned that should be shared with agencies nationwide. If after reading this you have additional advice or experiences to share, please let us know.
On February 14, 2018, a former student entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, fatally shot and killed 17 innocent people and wounded 17 others. This tragedy was the ninth deadliest mass shooting event in the history of the United States and the third deadliest school massacre at that time. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, located in Parkland, Florida, is a 45-acre campus comprised of 13 buildings. On the day of the shooting, there were 3,200 students and 200 staff members on campus. Stoneman Douglas was considered one of the safest schools in Florida, located in one of the safest communities in the country.
The intent of this article is to help law enforcement administrators prepare for and respond to similar tragedies in their respective communities’ time of need. It focuses on the leadership, training and communication issues that ensued that day as well as on the lessons learned from them. As retired Four-Star United States Army General Colin Powell said, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”
In most situations, leadership is the key to an operation successfully moving forward. In a chaotic situation, it is essential. In the case of the Parkland shooting, leadership from the agency responsible for policing that city was non-existent. Most of the intelligence was communicated by the deputy assigned to the school, a 32-year veteran of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office who had worked the last 28 years as a school resource deputy and had been assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for nine years before the incident occurred.
At the first sound of gunshots, he took a position of cover and remained there for 48 minutes. He then instructed responding deputies to set up a perimeter around the school and stay 500 feet away from the building in which the shooting was occurring. One of the deputies, a sergeant, did not communicate any information over the radio for 11 minutes, nor did he counter the school resource deputy’s instructions. The remaining deputies followed his instructions without question as well.
All shots were fired within five minutes, and all victims were shot in under four minutes. During that time, there were seven deputies and a sergeant present. A sheriff’s lieutenant and captain subsequently arrived at the scene, and neither of them questioned the school resource deputy’s instructions. Consequently, the school resource deputy appeared to be the officer in charge. Failures in leadership contributed to the school resource deputy’s inaction.
Officers, front-line supervisors and command staff members alike must clearly know their roles and demonstrate proficiency in their leadership abilities during training. Absent a strong foundation of leadership, especially at the supervisory level, any agency would likely fail in a high-stress, mass casualty situation.
The importance of having a fully staffed, fully competent and proactive training unit cannot be overemphasized. Law enforcement leaders must push for realistic scenarios that test officers and supervisors, as well as command staff members, both physically and mentally. The ability to observe their performance during training provides the best opportunity to see how they will perform in real-life situations.
Incident Command Structure is a large part of the training and preparation necessary to operate most effectively and efficiently in mass casualty situations. It was the Incident Command Structure training, along with a close working relationship with the Coral Springs Fire Department, that gave the Coral Springs Police Department a leg up in this situation. For years, both departments participated in active killer response training. They worked diligently to design policies and procedures that would be most effective in triaging and treating victims in order to save as many lives as possible.
The Coral Springs Police Department worked regularly with the fire department on Rescue Task Force training as well. This training contributed to its ability to excel in two critical areas: The officers understood how to respond to an active killer situation using the equipment assigned to them, and they understood how to work with the members of the fire department who entered the buildings with them. It also provided an opportunity for the paramedics to gain trust in the officers and feel comfortable they could enter a warm or hot zone without concern for their safety. According to emergency room physicians, the Coral Springs police officers and firefighters, along with the Broward sheriff’s deputies who entered the school, saved the lives of 17 students with gunshot wounds as well as three additional students with other injuries. They did so due to their ability to triage, treat and extract victims while simultaneously clearing buildings.
Possessing the right tools for the job and the knowledge of how to use them is imperative. Coral Springs police officers were fully equipped with and trained in the use of bleeding control kits which provided them with the ability to triage the victims inside the buildings and extract them after treating them. All officers had also been issued long guns and breaching tools and were provided with continual training in the use of them. Upon leaving their vehicles and entering the building, each officer had every piece of equipment necessary to handle the threat effectively with them.
Incident Command Structure and Rescue Task Force training is vital. The training and evaluation of officers and supervisors in realistic, real-life scenarios is imperative to the successful outcome of a critical incident. They must demonstrate tactical and operational proficiency during training. Furthermore, ensuring officers have, and are trained to use, the equipment necessary to respond to an incident is essential for operational effectiveness. These factors played a critical role in this tragedy and saved lives.
Information and intelligence are two of the most important pieces of knowledge a law enforcement officer can have when responding to a call. This is especially true in the event of a critical incident such as an active killer situation or a mass casualty event. In the case of the Parkland shooting, there were numerous missed opportunities to obtain and share sound intelligence and information related to the shooter as well as catastrophic failures with a radio system the sheriff’s office was using.
The city of Parkland is adjacent to the city of Coral Springs and contracts with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for its police services and with the city of Coral Springs for its fire services. Therefore, the Coral Springs Police Department received all cell phone calls that came in while the Broward Sheriff’s Office received all land line calls. This arrangement led to some communication issues and complicated the response. Additionally, the radios, which are designed to have interoperability, were not able to be patched as quickly as expected. While the system was tested numerous times, human error came into play and delayed the patch for over an hour. During that time, all responding deputies lost communication as the Broward Sheriff’s Office radio system failed. To overcome this obstacle, officers paired with deputies for safety and information purposes as Coral Springs Police Department’s new P25 radio system remained intact and operational.
The school resource deputy had both his sheriff’s office and school-assigned radios with him and transmitted there were several shots fired. However, subsequent conversations were contradictory to his first radio transmission and caused responding deputies to take tactical positions along a perimeter instead of entering the school. As responding Coral Springs officers arrived, they tried to glean intelligence from the school resource deputy but found it difficult to ascertain any additional information. Dispatch continued to receive phone calls, and through the testimony of an injured student who was able to escape, was able to provide officers with an idea where the shooter was. This lag in information and the delay in the school resource deputy’s instructions to responding deputies caused a tremendous hindrance in making a timely entrance into the building where the shooting occurred.
Law enforcement leaders must continue to learn from each other’s experiences. Over the course of their careers, most command officers will have the opportunity to attend debriefings and reviews of incidents that have occurred throughout the United States and abroad. In every case, there are lessons to be learned.
In evaluating an agency’s preparedness for an active killer situation, one should consider the lessons learned in the Parkland massacre. These elements are paramount to increasing the chance of a successful response in the case of a mass casualty event.
— Study and scrutinize every mass shooting to learn as much information as possible. Mass murderers are continually learning. They learn from each other and evolve and adapt their tactics after each massacre occurs. Furthermore, a killer who is familiar with a school or business may have knowledge of the unique attributes of the building as well as the policies, procedures and developed action plans put in place to deal with an active killer situation. The law enforcement community must learn as well and think before they do.
— Develop a clear active killer policy to ensure departmental expectations are fully understood by all staff. Best practice policies communicate what personnel must do, not should do, without leaving any room for misinterpretation.
— Ensure officers and deputies are trained in active killer protocols at least annually.
— Establish a communication plan. Knowledge of an agency’s radio system capacity and its functionality in the worst-case scenario is crucial. Establish a backup plan in the event of a radio system failure. Have emergency communication channels in place that all jurisdictions can easily access. Ensure they are user-friendly, as the time to look for an active radio channel is before the need to search for an active killer.
— Develop an Incident Command Structure training program. While this training is long and arduous, it does work. It lays a foundation of organization and problem-solving that will resurface when needed.
— Train with the fire department. Rescue Task Force training is a must. Fire personnel, specifically paramedics, must be able to get to the wounded as expeditiously as possible, and they should be comfortable doing so behind the manpower and force of weaponry that officers possess. This may need to occur while simultaneously looking for a killer. Training regularly will allow fire personnel to understand law enforcement will protect them as they attempt to save lives in warm or hot zones.
— Identify an incident commander to ensure there is no question as to the person in charge.
— Ensure officers and deputies are not outgunned. They should have department-issued long guns in their patrol cars, and those assigned to schools should be provided with safes within their buildings in which to store them.
— Train and equip officers and deputies with the resources needed to save lives, such as bleeding control kits. They should carry these items on their person.
— Ensure that there is a plan in place to provide coverage to the rest of the community through mutual aid or other means. In a situation like a school shooting or mass casualty event, all resources will be tied up for hours, and departments will require additional support for assistance. Update mutual aid agreements to include common sense language that allows for other jurisdictions to assist immediately if a mass casualty event occurs.
— Utilize the media spokesperson if you have one. Ensure they are prepared to convey the appropriate messaging and all information is vetted to the best of everyone’s ability. There are times the police chief or sheriff will need to personally address the media. However, in many cases the public information officer can speak and provide some room for questions to be followed up later by the agency head.
— Consider the length of time to leave officers in specialized positions. If unable to move them around, be sure to provide additional training to ensure they are ready to act in any situation an officer can possibly be involved in. Run realistic training scenarios with all personnel including command staff members. Require their attendance at in-service training to ensure intermediate supervisors and command staff members will lead effectively when necessary.
— Do not underestimate the amount of manpower needed to handle a mass casualty event. It is better to have more help than desired than to have less help than needed. Establish strong working relationships with police chiefs and sheriffs from surrounding jurisdictions to the level that they, along with their command staff, will be available and willing to provide aid.
— Update policies regarding self-dispatching to reflect what is expected in the event an officer is close by and has the ability to respond to an active killer incident. Most current policies prohibit self-dispatching under normal circumstances. However, some law enforcement personnel will show up on their own to assistance as evident in many recent active killer cases.
— Ensure in advance that, in the event of a crisis situation, the ability to access real-time camera footage within the school system exists.
In 1999, the Columbine High School shooting caused a paradigm shift in law enforcement’s response to active killer incidents. Waiting for SWAT was no longer an option. The Parkland massacre, as well as the more recent failed response to the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, drive that point home. No law enforcement leader wants to send officers on a suicide mission. However, waiting outside for backup officers to arrive on scene cannot happen.
The number of mass school shootings continues to trend in the wrong direction. As such, agencies must strive to follow best practices for mass casualty events by identifying strong leaders, providing regular, realistic, scenario-based training, and focusing on increasing interagency communication between all partners before something occurs. They must also be willing to learn from the experiences of those who have unfortunately been involved in the response to such tragedies. Law enforcement administrators must ensure their organizations are prepared by adopting the mindset that, “It can happen here,” because it can.
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