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April 2013 · Volume 95 · Number 3

Cover Story

Gun Violence%3A Management Steps to Take Now

by Ron Carlee

Norcross, Oakland, Seattle, Aurora, Oak Creek, Minneapolis, and Newtown—seven U.S. cities from coast to coast, all of which experienced mass shootings in 2012: 72 dead, 70 injured, and many others emotionally scarred for life.

The magnitude of gun violence in the United States is undeniable. As with all social phenomena, the extent of the problem and the dominant public attitudes vary dramatically from one community to another. The stark reality is that mass gun deaths can occur in any community on any day. The challenge for managers is to be prepared.

10 Issues Requiring Attention

City managers who have experienced mass shootings in their communities have accumulated valuable experiences that can help other managers prepare for similar emergencies. Based on interviews and reports from these communities, here are 10 critical issues that have emerged.

1. Stay involved. Managers walk a line between disengagement and micromanagement, but at all stages—emergency preparedness, response, and recovery—the chief executive needs to be visible and engaged.

Blacksburg, Virginia, is the home of Virginia Tech, the location of the 2007 mass shootings that killed 33 people and injured 23. Blacksburg Police Chief Kim Crannis advises that a manager needs to be involved so that the manager understands what the police and emergency management personnel are doing and why. Mark Verniel, Blacksburg’s city manager, confirmed that participating in simulation training “gave me an entirely different perspective on what active shooter policies really mean.”

2. Plan and train. The Columbine High School murders in 1999 changed everything, showing how lessons can be learned and put into place. Active shooter plans are now commonplace and direct first responders to encounter and neutralize the shooter as the immediate priority.

Most police departments now plan and train based on this model. Mass events, however, require responses across all of the assets of a local government. Planning, training, and testing cannot be limited to public safety.

Police Chief Mike Kehoe, Newtown, advises that cities need to practice and drill for these incidents with all of the stakeholders and in the locations where the incidents can occur. In the case of a school, for example, that means training with the fire department, the emergency medical service (EMS) responders, the state police and local neighboring police, the teachers, and the school administrators all at the same time

This is extremely difficult from a scheduling standpoint, but it is critical. Bill Halstead, fire marshal and emergency management director for Newtown, says it is critical for a fire department to have standard operating procedures and operating guidelines in place for its response to violent incidents, and to coordinate its practices with other responders.

At the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, Illinois, six people were killed and 21 injured. City Manager Mark Biernacki shared an independent study that reported how the fire department, department of public safety, hospital, and other mutual-aid responders were well prepared for the shooting because employees had practiced emergency drills together.

They had also studied the official report published on the Virginia Tech shootings and had integrated lessons learned from that tragedy into the university’s and DeKalb’s emergency response procedures.

3. Activate the plan. The actual incident, however, will not match the plan and the scenario training. Having a strong foundation enables responders to improvise based on the uniqueness of the situation. Expect the unexpected; be prepared to be surprised.

A 2012 shooting at a nursing school in Oakland, California, left seven people killed and three injured. City Manager Deanna Santana shared a police department after-action report that advised responders to be flexible and prepared to change tempo depending on the situation.

Dan Singer is city manager of Goleta, California, where seven people were killed at a mail processing plant. He notes that government is accustomed to “following the rules,” which can help guide an organization in a time of crisis, but that not every scenario can be predetermined. Singer says key participants must think creatively, intuitively, and non-bureaucratically.

4. Take care of the victims and their loved ones. This is one of the most critical and most challenging tasks. Once the scene is secured and people are out of danger, a new phase of difficult and emotional work begins. In everything that is done, it is critical to show the highest possible regard for the dignity of the people who may have died and the highest possible level of sensitivity to people who have lost loved ones.

Family assistance is critical. Families need to have a number to call and someone with whom to talk. Many family members will gather at the scene. A safe, secure, and private location needs to be established for the families where they can get accurate information and support services and have their basic needs met.

Delays in identifying victims and clearing the crime scene will seem endless and create considerable anxiety for family members. They need to know that people are aware of their needs and are doing everything possible to meet them. They need empathy with action.

The Oakland Police Department reports that it needed to get translators for victims and witnesses and needed water and food for them during the long period that it took to identify the deceased and to take statements. Everyone was in shock: victims, witnesses, and responders.

Skip Noe is city manager of Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were killed and 58 injured during the 2012 shooting in a movie theater. Noe advises local government staff to take their time and follow the lead of victims. “Putting the victims first will always put responders and the local government in the best position.”

5. Take care of your people, yourself, and the community. It may seem strange that the community is listed last in this heading; however, if first responders and other officials, including the manager, are emotionally impaired, they cannot take care of others.

A mass death event, however, presents images never imagined, images indelibly etched into everyone’s memory. Early intervention can make a difference. Critical stress debriefing is an essential part of the preplanning and requires immediate deployment. It’s a mistake to think that intervention is only needed for first responders. A mass death event takes an emotional toll and counseling needs to be rapidly available for everyone, including local government staff members.

Of less severe but real impact is overwork and obsession with the incident. All participants, including the police and fire chief, the manager, the mayor or board chairman, and the public information officer, are all at risk of over-extending themselves and diminishing their effectiveness. Self-discipline rarely works. People engaged in a major event must take care of each other, up and down the hierarchy.

Singer observed that everyone’s attention—the manager, police and fire chiefs, public information officer, mayor, and others—is focused outward during a mass event. Employees in the organization, or those who have responded or have simply been touched by the incident, also need attention, support, reassurance, and information.

6. Manage the media and other outsiders. The number of media outlets is overwhelming and their reach is global. Media transmit 24/7, with an insatiable appetite. Have a media management plan in place, including contingency resources from outside the organization. Be prepared to take these actions:

  • Designate a media manager.
  • Find a place to stage the media.
  • Meet the media’s basic safety and sustenance needs.
  • Give the media visuals.
  • Schedule regular briefings.
  • Select a spokesperson; have a clear message and stick to it.

Kirsten Zimmer Deshler, former public information officer for Goleta, says that “from a communications standpoint, it would be an understatement to say Goleta was not prepared for this crisis.” City Manager Singer goes on to point out that managers “shouldn’t worry about over communicating: You can’t say too much, too often,’’ he asserts, ``when providing pertinent and helpful information to the community and media.”

Blacksburg Manager Verniel notes that in addition to the media, there will be many “official” visits and that “people with issues” will appear. Among the most common in Blacksburg were protestors from Westboro Baptist Church. When the independent church known for its extreme ideologies came to Blacksburg wanting to create a scene, Verneil reports, “We didn’t take the bait; we let them do their thing and then they moved on.”

7. Facilitate an ad hoc memorial and appropriate events. People are compelled to demonstrate their sadness and hurt. Help make a memorial happen. Find a place for it and protect it. At an appropriate time, retire it and preserve the artifacts as appropriate.

Noe says there was an overwhelming outpouring of support and a need for the community to come together in Aurora. Accordingly, the city planned and executed a vigil in 48 hours, with an attendance estimated at 10,000.

8. Manage donations and volunteers. Beyond the ad hoc memorial, a number of people will want to help, often with money, which needs a depository and a trustworthy administrator to oversee it. People will also want to make donations of goods and services, whether these are needed or not. Realize that these are good people with good intent who sincerely want to help. Give them a way to do so and have a strategy in place to accomplish it.

9. Plan a permanent memorial. Involve the families of victims and others intimately connected to the event. Set realistic goals that are achievable within a reasonable period of time.

10. Move on. In the immediate term, practical issues need managers’ attention. Trash still needs to be collected, water mains have to be repaired, and responses must be made to routine 911 calls. There is a compelling need to return to normalcy or as close as one can get in the community.

In the mid-term, the community has to resolve a long list of tasks: clearing the crime scene; reopening or permanently closing the site of the incident; attending to such legal matters as lawsuits and trials; and handling the many requests from outside organizations for presentations about the event, with the heaviest demands likely to be on the police and fire chiefs.

Aurora Manager Noe relates what a difficult decision it was to reopen the movie theater where the shootings took place. In the end, the conclusion was to reopen, in many ways as an act of defiance against the shooter.

And then there are the official reviews—after-action reports, commission reports, legislative reports—any and all of which may second-guess what the manager and his or her team did and how they performed. Blacksburg Manager Verniel recommends embracing legitimate criticism and using it as a lesson for everyone. He notes that Columbine is a great example of how people learned to operate differently.

The ability to “move on” for the long-term may be the hardest task of all. Dealing with all of the above issues creates a new day-to-day reality that can become an obsession. All involved will be changed forever.

“Surreal” is a word that has often been used to describe gun-violence tragedies. Managers must find the support to move on themselves, so that they can help the community move on, honoring those lost and building a community for the living, for their children, and for posterity.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched a new website in January 2013 that provides comprehensive information about active shooter preparedness: http://www.dhs.gov/activeshooter.

Join the Conversation

ICMA, in collaboration with the Alliance for Innovation, has created a gun violence topic on the Knowledge Network that is open to all contributors. Its intent is to share lessons learned and to create an environment to discuss civilly the issue of gun violence and its impact at the local level.

Material for this article is based on interviews and e-mail messages with staff members from affected communities and written reports that they provided. ICMA staff members Leonard Matarese and Thomas Wieczorek made contact with the police and fire chiefs from Newtown, Connecticut. Staff member Gabriel Brehm also conducted research. Figures were obtained from various news sources.

Ron Carlee is chief operating officer, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (rcarlee@icma.org). On April 1, he will begin service as city manager, Charlotte, North Carolina. He was previously county manager of Arlington County, Virginia, 2000–2009, and had local responsibility for managing the response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon in 2001.