Earlier this week, I spoke with a retired battalion chief from the Aurora (Colo.) Fire Department who was heading back to the department to support former colleagues and friends in the wake of last week’s tragic mass shooting. Aurora’s first responders have been credited for their well-organized, fast response to the incident and their handling of the shooting victims, and she was confident that the department was equipped to handle the post-incident effects. The department has good stress debriefing programs because it had learned many lessons from the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999, she said.
After that conversation, I decided to call Bill Pessemier, who was the fire and EMS incident commander at Columbine incident. He later became chief in Littleton, and now is director of 911 dispatch for the Summit County (Colo.) Communications Center.
“Soon after Columbine, we were invited to speak at different conferences about lessons we learned from the incident,” Pessemier said. “We tried to be brutally honest with what went well and what didn’t go so well, and [provide] different recommendations for fire, law and EMS.”
Pessemier said each presentation placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of collaboration among the public-safety agencies and of developing relationships before incidents. Presenters also made recommendations on unified command at large-scale incidents to achieve a common goal.
“We did that for about a year after Columbine,” Pessemier said, adding that most presentations were done on vacation time or traded scheduled. “We just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Pessemier is stunned by the similarities between the Columbine and the Century 16 cinema shootings.
“Everything looked the same: what the shooter did, how the police and fire responded — it was stunningly similar,” he said.
Pessemier told me that the two Columbine shooters — who killed 12 students and one teacher — also had supplies inside their parked cars to cause fatal explosions. “One of the police officers who was taking cover behind one of the [shooter’s] cars saw a propane tank, a timer and gasoline inside the car,” he said.
Similarly, alleged Aurora shooter James Holmes had rigged his entire apartment with a complex series of explosives that took authorities days to dismantle.
“What is it about the American society or culture that is breeding this sort of anger or mental attitude that says, ‘I’ll just go kill a bunch of people?’” Pessemier asked.
We may never know why. But the incident highlights why America’s fire and emergency medical responders must stand ready to respond to the next call for help, never sure of what they will find.