Coordination Between Fire, Police Has Improved Since Columbine Shooting

BALTIMORE, Md. -- When the first responders arrived at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col., they had no idea of the magnitude of the event.

Firefighters and EMTs stopped in front of the school where students were running toward them. They found a person with an ankle injury.

They had no idea that Jefferson County deputies were on the other side of the school two students dead, and others injured, retired Littleton Fire Dept. Chief Bill Pessemier said Thursday.

Speaking at Firehouse Expo, Pessemier described the chaotic scene – sirens, helicopeters, police officers, SWAT teams, traffic and anxious parents.

Follow additional Expo coverage at Firehouse Expo 2010.

Response to the Columbine school shooting in 1999 was an uncoordinated event that Pessemier said caused confusion between firefighters and law enforcement.

"We had no professional or operational relationship with these guys," he said, adding that it was difficult to get a handle on the incident.

Unable to communicate by radio, Pessemier said things were escalating quickly. They had never worked together, and therefore, didn't know one another.

"We had runners like the Roman army," he said, adding that phones, cell phones and radios were useless.

Pessemier said he agreed to allow the police to move one of the fire engines to use as cover for officers. "We were criticized for giving them our engine."

But, the chief defended his decision saying it made sense to him. Since they hadn't worked together, firefighters weren't familiar with terms like "clear."

Pessemier after paramedics were motioned to come around back to get patients they found themselves in the middle of a firefight. "Luckily, they were bad shots."

Officers were transporting patients out to triage areas for treatment. "We'd never planned for that -- that officers would be bringing the injured to us."

One of his deputy chiefs, dressed in a black or dark bunker coat, who was assisting with the landing of a helicopter was taken down at gunpoint. Had he been able to communicate with police, he would have been able to identify who the person was.

Pessemier urged fire and rescue crews not to wait until they're on the significant incident to introduce themselves to police officers.

He said it's essential for everyone to know the resources available before hand.

Controlling the scene was almost impossible. Several ambulance companies responded on their own to assist.

The retired chief said someone needs to take the lead, and get people to understand that things like this could happen in their little town.

Pessemier added that Will Rogers said it best: "Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."