When catastrophe strikes—whether it's a mass shooting such as the recent Washington Navy Yard tragedy or a terror attack like the Boston Marathon bombing—the burden of managing a swift and effective response falls on city officials.
But few officials outside America's major urban areas have experience responding to such crises, which can strain a town's administrative, communication and enforcement resources.
While much of the national dialogue on violent crises has been centered on the gun control debate, during a special conference call yesterday for reporters, members of the International City/County Management Association called for local governments to sharpen their focus in preparing for worst-case scenarios. In the moments after a mass shooting, the politics of guns take a back seat to the administrative task of organizing and maintaining plans for inter-agency communication, victims' services and public relations, they said.
One challenge that's often overlooked is dealing with the stampede of national media drawn to a tragedy.
“Maintain maximum availability to the press, and making sure that there's a clear accurate and consistent message that's coming out of the community,” is critical, according to Gerald Peterson, city administrator for Oak Creek, WI, where six people were killed and four others wounded at a Sikh Temple on August 5, 2012.
In that event, Peterson said, “It was important for us to identify and establish victim support services, try to centralize those and link those through city websites into services that were available in the region.”
Communication structures are also vital to maintaining order among the many governmental agencies that respond to mass shootings.
When a shooter opened fire at Oikos University in Oakland, CA on April 2, 2012, many officers in the local police department were already engaged in crowd control at a protest across town; others were participating in a raid of a several marijuana dispensaries.
As a result, the initial response to the shooting included officers from eight additional departments, said Oakland city administrator Deanna Santana.
“It really requires that you get on one page and that you remain organized throughout the incident … identifying early on the incident commander, getting folks to work in the incident commander structure,” Santana said
Often, that structure includes first responders not accustomed to operating during an active shooter scenario, Peterson added.
After the Oak Creek shooting, firefighters and emergency medical technicians in many Wisconsin towns received SWAT-training for treating victims on scene, while police are still responding to a mass shooting.
“When there are victims that can be helped with early response, we feel that we need to provide that direction, that there's an expectation that we would enter into those scenes,” Peterson said.
The need to have city personnel on scene, ready to work, even while crises are still unfolding is pervasive among city administrators.
Dan Singer, city manager of Goleta, CA — where seven people, including the shooter, were killed at a United States Postal Service sorting plant in 2006 — said these moments are what city administrators are ultimately judged on.
“For me this isn't really about gun violence, it's about our responsiveness to our communities,” Singer said. “The hottest corners of hell are reserved for those who in times of crisis do nothing.”
Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.