Parkland HS Shooting One-Year Later: Lessons for Public Information Officers

A year ago, the nation watched in horror as news from Parkland, Florida spread. Among the many aspects of that tragedy that warrant change, public information officers can learn much from that incident. Recently, I spent some time with students who survived the mass shooting that occurred a year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While they praised the skill and bravery of the police who responded, they told me about things that could have been done better.

Listen to Parkland student Adam Alhanti on what wasn’t learned in advance that could make a difference in future school shootings. Alhanti was interviewed by Doug Levy.

My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m f***ing scared right now. 
— Aidan Minoff (@TheCaptainAidan) February 14, 2018 3:01 PM

Parkland HS students used Twitter and other messaging platforms while hiding. (Tweet edited to alter the profanity.)

No matter how good any emergency response may be, there are always things to learn. In fact, there are lessons from Parkland that apply to all kinds of emergencies, not just active shooter attacks.

Two students who were at Parkland during the shooting, Adam Alhanti and John Barnitt, both offered terrific insights on how law enforcement and other emergency responders can do more to help quell fears, maintain calm, and reduce anxiety in a crisis–and how to improve planning. 

Top of the list: John and Adam both said that there must be better planning for getting information out – in real-time – to people in the middle of a major incident. Relying on social media for updates often results in inaccurate or insufficient details. Despite drills, students were scared, unsure of where to go or what to do, and were unsure how to determine friend from foe.

When I wrote The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts, my goal was to help anyone responsible for emergency management identify the communications actions that are important in any emergency. Instead of binders full of scenarios, document the tactics, tools and intelligence that enable incident commanders and public information officers to make swift decisions, craft accurate messages, and get urgent information out – fast.

AVOID AREA OF DOUGLAS HS for ACTIVE POLICE SCENE. Do not call 911 unless an emergency. Nothing further.
— Coral Springs Police (@CoralSpringsPD) February 14, 2018 2:34 PM

Police from the adjacent jurisdiction were on the scene and communicating faster than the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

#BSO is working a developing incident regarding a report of active shooter located at 5901 Pine Island Rd, Parkland. Here’s what we know so far: deputies are responding to reports of a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High. There are reports of victims. PIO will be on scene 3:15pm.
— Broward Sheriff (@browardsheriff) February 14, 2018 2:53 PM

This was the Broward Sheriff’s office first tweet about the Parkland situation.

Here are some of the lessons that the Parkland students told me that emergency responders should factor into their communications and emergency response plans:

  • THINKING UNDER DURESS: The students worried about people who were not hiding or staying still during the attack. Perhaps we can build into our plans some kind of fast reminders about key steps for safety, such as a reminder to “stay quiet, keep away from windows, and don’t walk around.” No matter how many drills are ever done, it’s hard for people to do exactly what they are “supposed” to do under duress.
  • NOT EVERYONE HEARS YOU: One of the students told me he was afraid that someone was going to be shot by police because they did not understand the command to not have anything in their hands when exiting. When the SWAT team arrived to rescue students and teachers who were hiding, their instructions did not account for students with disabilities. 
  • DESIGNATE A CLEAR AUTHORITY: The students told me that during the initial response, they were confused by tweets from different police departments. There was no single authority that the students relied on as they sweated out those horrifying minutes hiding from the gunman. The main sources of information were tweets from media outlets.
  • PLAN AHEAD FOR OBVIOUS SCENARIOS: The Parkland high school’s campus is large and open. The students said that there should have been better pre-planning for evacuating each part of the campus in an emergency. This kind of pre-planning has made a difference in other emergencies, such as a shopping mall shooting in Texas last winter. 

Police are working an active shooter scene, and ask that if you are in touch with your student you ask that they remain calm and barricaded until police come to their room, this is for everyone’s safety. Do NOT call our 911 or non-emergency number unless it is an emergency.
— Coral Springs Police (@CoralSpringsPD) February 14, 2018 3:29 PM

Important instructions for worried family and friends — including what to relay to anyone inside they were in contact with.

This kind of post-event analysis is one of the most important practices for any emergency agency, and its widespread adoption is one reason why emergency plans in many communities have already been updated based on learnings from last year’s wildfires and the most recent mass casualty incidents, including the mass murders at Parkland and Las Vegas.

What have you changed recently? Should others follow your lead? Let me know, and I’ll compile some of the key learnings.

Here’s to being ready to save lives next time and every time.

Hawaii false alarm shows importance of focused emergency planning

This was a message from a Hawaiian mother to her daughter in California after the false alert.
A mother in Hawaii sent this to her daughter in California after the false alert.

The errant missile warning that alarmed people in Hawaii on January 13 showed the importance of emergency planning that includes anticipating possible errors. Apart from other issues with the response, there can be no defending that it took more than 10 minutes after the mistaken wide-area alert for corrective messages to start going out. In fact, the full-scale “nevermind” message was sent more than 30 minutes after the false alarm. That half-hour was filled with preventable emotion, tension, and fear. Parents sent heart-wrenching messages to children, people rushed to get home, and stores closed in a hurry.

The concept of Communications Golden Hour™ that I detail in my forthcoming book focuses on the importance of having the right steps identified in advance of an emergency and thinking through in a meticulous way all the things that could happen — including mistakes. This is a crucial element of emergency planning.

If a real life-threatening emergency occurs, police or others responsible for emergency management must get a message out rapidly – within 3-5 minutes in most instances. However, they also have many other immediate priorities besides communications. Thus, turning communications over to a professional communicator – or someone else who is charged specifically with communications – within the initial minutes is every bit as important as dispatching fire engines, ambulances, SWAT teams or any other emergency responders.

This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.
This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.

A professional communicator needs to immediately confirm that the message already distributed is accurate. The next step is to craft a follow-up message that can get out within 20 minutes of the onset of the emergency. The first message alerts the public. The second provides instructions on what to do. It also can advise that the situation is under control or escalating. That did not happen in Hawaii, which added to the confusion.

State officials in Hawaii will need to make their own decisions about the wisdom of an alert system that can be triggered by a single individual. In many systems, a duty officer can send an urgent warning to trigger responses from emergency officials, but a wide-area alert like this one would require another command-level supervisor’s authority.

Residents of Honolulu also criticized the emergency management agency for providing an alert that was not actionable: few people had any idea where to go for shelter, and there was no guidance about where to find this information. With Internet and phone traffic rapidly overloaded in those frantic few minutes Saturday morning, a follow-up message with information on what to do would have helped a lot. In a real emergency, people need to know what to do, and you cannot presume they will remember information that was previously provided when they are under stress of the moment.

Especially in an area where so many people are visitors, emergency messages need to factor in the idea that not everyone receiving the message has the same knowledge that residents may have.

“I noticed that everybody was just stopped in their tracks, getting on the phone and calling people,” said Seth Buckley, a Honolulu lawyer who was out doing photography when the alert went out. “There was a lot of, ‘I received this, now what the heck do I do?'”

Chicago resident Matthew Griffo was there on vacation when the alert shook him out of bed.

“We had just been at Pearl Harbor, so it was pretty fresh in our minds how they thought it was a false alarm. We thought we would rather be on the side of caution,” so he and his family rushed to their hotel lobby. Once there, they realized there was no shelter nearby, said Griffo.

What questions do you have about the key elements of your communications emergency plan? I’ll answer questions left in the comments.