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.


Communications resources would also be distributed based on function rather than jurisdiction. For example, if three jurisdictions each had five channels, then a total of 15 channels are available. If these channels were distributed by function, then the entire region might have two command channels, eight operations channels, and five logistics channels. If we went by the general rule of no more than 20 units on a single channel, then we could handle a total of 40 units on the command channels, 160 units on the operations channels, and 100 units on the logistics channels. A functional distribution of communications resources allows more units to communicate over more channels. The alternative under a jurisdictional based distribution of communications resources is that everyone on the response is trying to communicate on one or two channels, resulting in channel congestion and overload. As communications breakdown, so does the effectiveness of the emergency response.

When considering these issues and opportunities for change, it might be helpful to keep a variation of the quote from Edward Lewis in mind: "Define yourself by how well you are prepared for the worst that might happen to you." The worst that can happen to you is that something occurs in your community that is beyond the capability of your local first response resources. An effective response to a catastrophic incident begins with the recognition of latent potential, a realistic appraisal of your capabilities and limitations, and the development of a practical plan for an effective regional response to the incident.

If something catastrophic was to happen, and you needed help, where would that help come from? Make a list of those organizations and ask them to meet and talk with you about how you can be better prepared for a catastrophic incident. It is very likely that no one else in your department or in your region will take action to bring such a group together to talk about real change. The responsibility for creating a more effective response capability is yours. How will you choose to define yourself? Will you be defined by the way you have always done things in the past, or will you be defined by what you will be prepared to do in the future?


Chief Bill Pessemier spent 25 years in the fire service serving in a number of positions throughout his career, from firefighter to training officer to fire chief. Prior to his retirement as the fire chief in Littleton, CO, Bill was the incident commander for the fire and emergency medical response to the shootings at Columbine High School. Bill was appointed by James Lee Witt, past Director of FEMA, as a member of the America Burning Recommissioned Panel. In his role with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Bill has recently written a handbook on interoperability titled: Top Priority: A Fire Service Guide to Interoperable Communications. Bill holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Illinois and is currently working on a Doctoral Degree in Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver. You can contact Bill by e-mail at: bpessemier@iafc.org