Does Anything Really Change after a Catastrophic Incident?

The author served as the fire incident commander for the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.


Editor's Note: Firehouse asked the author, who served as the incident commander at the Columbine High School shooting, to share his knoweldge and the lessons learned with the fire service following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

Now that another tragedy has taken the lives of so many innocent victims at Virginia Tech, I am reminded of the words of Edward Lewis, who said "Define yourself by the best that is in you, not the worst that has happened to you." Despite the horrible tragedy that occurred this month, it seems clear that the people at Virginia Tech are working to define themselves by what is best in them. I have no doubt that they will be successful. But in the aftermath of the terrifying way in which these lives were lost, people also want to know why this happened, what can be done to be better prepared to respond to a large scale incident, and what can be done to prevent such a loss of life in the future.

It is well beyond my capability to even try to talk about why these things happen. Preventing such acts of violence is also well beyond by level of expertise, although it would be an interesting discussion about how the identity of the fire service would have to change in order for firefighters to become more involved in preventing acts of violence in their local community. But I do have some thoughts I would like to share about becoming better prepared to respond to large scale incidents.

Becoming better prepared to respond to large scale incidents starts with the recognition that every community has the potential for a catastrophic incident, one that overwhelms the capability of their local public safety agencies and first responders. In a small community, with a lower level of first response resources, it might take an incident involving a handful of deaths and a dozen injuries to overwhelm the capability of their fire, police, and emergency medical resources. In a larger community, with a larger level of available resources, it might take an incident involving dozens of people killed and hundreds wounded to reach the point where the local resources are not able to respond effectively to the incident.

Recognizing the latent potential in your community is the first step in becoming better prepared for an effective response. The latent potential for a catastrophic incident is the potential that is present but has not yet become active or openly manifest. It is imperative for first responders to recognize that the latent potential for a catastrophic incident is always present in every community. No matter what the cause, it is very possible that something might happen that will overwhelm your local response capability. The specific cause of the catastrophic incident matters less that the effect or impact of the incident in terms of the number of casualties or the amount of property damage that might occur so that you can recognize the point at which regional resources will be required for an effective response.

After a catastrophic incident occurs, many communities will examine and reevaluate their latent potential for a catastrophic incident. It seems that in most cases, people look over their individual response plans, make a few minor changes based on what happened at the latest tragedy, and then put the response plan back on the shelf. Very little, if anything, is changed after such reviews with regard to the fundamental structure and process of how first responders provide local services. The result is that the same latent potential for an ineffective response continues to be present, just waiting to become manifest in a catastrophic incident.

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