On January 18, 2024, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) released the highly anticipated report of its critical incident review of the May 24, 2022, mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The shooting claimed the lives of 19 fourth grade students and two of their teachers, physically injured 17 students and educators, and left countless others in the school and throughout the community dealing with unimaginable shock and trauma. The response to the shooting by authorities, primarily by law enforcement, was described by some as a “catastrophic failure,” prompting Uvalde’s mayor to request an independent review be conducted by the DOJ. While the report delves into this failure in painstaking detail, it also contains hundreds of observations and recommendations that can help communities, including schools and first responder agencies, avoid these same failures if faced with a similar situation. This blog summarizes 10 key takeaways focused on those recommendations.
- Relationship building should start before the crisis.
Like many other mass shootings, the response in Uvalde brought together numerous first responder agencies—more than 380 law enforcement officers responded from over 30 local, state, and federal agencies. Yet many of these officers and agencies had never trained together and relied on different tactics and methods of communication (verbal vs. non-verbal), which created difficulties in coordinating the response. One of the key recommendations in the DOJ’s report to address the multitude of authorities involved in a crisis response is to have first responder agencies establish mutual aid agreements with neighboring organizations (i.e., police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS)) that would be likely to assist in a major event, including, but not limited to, an active shooter situation. These agreements typically outline the sharing of personnel and resources between agencies as well as training expectations to improve continuity and coordination of responses. It is critical for these different agencies to train together ahead of any crisis. Doing so helps to improve familiarity with personnel from other agencies, validate any response plans, and identify and address gaps in the plan before it is used in a real-world event. In addition, using standardized, common language like that from the Federal Emergency Management Association’s (FEMA) National Incident Management System (NIMS) can help ensure that all responders can communicate through a shared vocabulary.
- Training for law enforcement and other first responders should include tactical emergency casualty care.
In addition to training with other agencies, the report recommends that first responders have comprehensive training that covers tactical emergency casualty care. In this training model, law enforcement officers and others who work in “hot zones”—areas that are typically viewed as too unsafe for EMS due to an ongoing threat—are taught skills like hemorrhage control, chest needle decompressions, breathing control, and rapid extrication of critical victims that have been found to increase survivability. Similarly, some agencies employ a “rescue task force” model, where EMS personnel enter a scene sooner to provide care (typically in a “warm zone,” which is safer than the hot zone but still not completely threat-free) with law enforcement officers who serve as protection. The goal of the rescue task force is to quickly evaluate, stabilize, and extricate victims to get them more immediate medical attention. Training on these models with other first responders and agencies ahead of a critical incident better ensures that responders can more effectively and efficiently carry out these tasks.
One of the key recommendations in the DOJ’s report… is to have first responder agencies establish mutual aid agreements with neighboring organizations…
- Any response should follow a “priority of life” scale.
Active shooter response has drastically evolved since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. Today, the first priority for law enforcement is to stop the killing, then stop the dying. This operational principle, known as the priority of life scale, places civilians at the top, followed by first responders, and the suspect last. As such, neutralizing the threat to civilians, even if it means risking officer safety, is seen as the highest priority. This means that, in certain instances, even the first officer to arrive on scene immediately—and on their own—seeks out the active threat to bring it to an end, regardless of available resources (e.g., certain weapons, ballistics gear). The DOJ’s report recommends that training for law enforcement and other first responders reflect this principle.
- Someone has to be in charge.
One of the critical failures highlighted by the DOJ in Uvalde was the lack of an incident command structure (ICS), which contributed to an absence of organization among resources and misinformation. An incident commander (IC) in charge of an ICS is responsible for coordinating all available personnel and resources that are deployed to a scene. They also are responsible for communicating out information vital to a successful response. The ICS may operate with a single incident commander, particularly early in the incident, or a unified command structure that includes representatives from multiple agencies working together to coordinate the response. In both models, additional staff overseeing particular tasks (i.e., planning, operations, logistics, finance, public information) assist in managing the response. It also is critical that an incident command post is established quickly during an event to provide a centralized location through which the coordination of the response occurs. The DOJ’s report highlights how having written ICS plans in advance of events is critical but notes that agencies can also establish who will take charge in a multi-agency response within their mutual aid agreements. Similarly, school districts can also establish incident command structures, and sharing that information with their law enforcement partners will help responding officers be able to identify who is in charge for the school to further improve coordination.
- Have plans in place for self-deploying resources.
As noted, more than 380 first responders were on scene at Robb Elementary School shortly after the attack began. The overwhelming response also created practical challenges, including blocking ingress and egress routes for emergency medical services and potentially depleting resources needed for other tasks, such as responding to routine service calls. As outlined by DOJ, having established plans for handling the significant influx of personnel and resources as part of a written ICS plan will help to ensure that efforts are as coordinated as possible. This includes things like identifying designated staging areas and methods of dissemination of information to entities who often use different radio frequencies.
In addition to first responders, this lack of coordinated deployment of resources may also be an issue among other types of professionals during a critical event, such as mental health professionals. Having assistance agreements in place among service providers can be beneficial in deploying resources. While well-meaning, some professionals may not have the experience or training to handle an incident of this magnitude. As such, it is critical that an established agency with the necessary experience in the community takes the lead and works to vet any service providers seeking to assist with the response.
…having written incident command structure plans in advance of events is critical…
- Ensure resources for first responders are current.
As with other mass shooting incidents, both in and out of schools, the efforts of first responders in Uvalde were hindered by out-of-date resources, such as maps of the buildings. DOJ’s report highlighted how ensuring that first responder have the most current information available can help to improve responses by identifying access points, key markers within the location, and the location of resources, such as bleeding control kits or other medical supplies. Given the constant updates made to these locations, one potential avenue is digital blueprints, which can be accessed on a range of different technologies (e.g., computers or laptops, cell phones) in real-time rather than having to search for potentially outdated paper maps or rely on the memories of witnesses who were likely just exposed to traumatic and stressful stimuli.
- Provide means of access.
In the same vein, ensuring that first responders have adequate means of access to both the school building and the rooms within it can limit any delays to stopping the attack and rendering medical assistance to those who are injured. In Uvalde, while all exterior doors of the building were unlocked (counter to the school’s standard operating procedures), the interior doors were believed to be secured and thus responders spent a considerable amount of time seeking and testing keys. Providing means of access in advance, whether by providing access cards to the building to law enforcement or having master keys readily available at school entrances in Knox Boxes, can facilitate a more rapid response. When master keys are provided, it is imperative that schools first check to ensure that the key opens all doors and that any recently installed locks have been keyed to the master.
- Redundancy in communication is critical.
In addition to the inoperability between radio channels from agency-to-agency, the response in Uvalde was hampered by practical challenges, namely that some of the radios did not work in the building. While cell phones were used, these may not always be available due to cellular networks getting jammed from the vast number of calls being placed during an incident. Ensuring that there is redundancy in communication channels, including considering other outlets such as local area networks, is critical to ensuring effective means of communication during times of crisis. These channels also should be regularly tested to ensure they are functioning when needed most.
Importantly, this issue also extends to communicating with members of the impacted location as well as with the public. In Uvalde, at least one employee initiated the lockdown notification via the school’s Raptor notification system, which blasted out text messages, emails, and alert messages. Due to limited cell phone signal, intermittent internet access, and other challenges, many of these messages were not received. These systems also often require people to opt-in, meaning that individuals may not have registered to receive the alerts in the first place. As such, it is vital for schools and other emergency operators to utilize multimodal notification systems that span a range of technologies and outlets for information dissemination. In addition to implementing these avenues, efforts must be made to improve utilization through education about the systems and how to sign up to receive alerts, and the systems must be regularly tested to maximize their operability.
- Providing continual updates with verified information is essential.
As with other mass shootings, the response to Uvalde was plagued with misinformation, both across first responders and out to the general public. This largely stemmed from a lack of incident command but was further impacted by a lack of coordination among other entities such as the governor’s office, hospitals, the reunification center, and the media. Ensuring that only verified information is transmitted out can help to reduce confusion and, by extension, added and unnecessary trauma. It is critical to have a well-developed crisis communication plan and a centralized point of information dissemination, such as a public information officer (PIO) within the incident command structure. Other outlets can restate and reinforce this material, but only verified facts should be shared. Additionally, regularly timed updates should be provided, even if no new information is available, to keep people abreast of the evolving situation and when further details might be expected.
- Responses of any nature should be victim-centered and culturally sensitive.
Finally, it is critical that any response efforts be focused on the victims and survivors and be linguistically appropriate and culturally sensitive. Different communities will have different needs, and all must be integrated in response strategies to ensure that resources are both readily available and easily used by those who need it. As the DOJ’s report discussed, this may mean ensuring that messages and materials are available in multiple languages, as was the case in Uvalde where a majority of those affected needed Spanish-language resources. Resources also may need to accommodate religious customs and norms (e.g., as in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting where rapid identification and release of the victims was needed for families to be able to adhere to Jewish burial customs) or account for already marginalized groups who may be further isolated by the event (e.g., such as the attacks against the LGBTQIA+ community in mass shootings at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando (2016) and Club Q in Colorado Springs (2022)). Working with providers who already are familiar with the impacted communities can help ensure that resources are utilized.
Although rare events, mass shootings continue to increase in frequency, making it all the more imperative that communities across the US have plans in place to respond to such events should they be needed. Although nothing will bring back the 19 children and two educators lost in Uvalde nor undo the incredible trauma that has rippled through this tight-knit community, the lessons learned and recommendations offered in the DOJ’s critical incident review can aid first responders and communities across the nation in their efforts. While we hope that these lessons are never needed and continue to work to end the epidemic of gun violence in our nation, proactively planning can ensure the best possible outcome on the worst day imaginable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jaclyn Schildkraut is executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium (RGVRC) at the Rockefeller Institute of Government