Newtown, CT 12/14/12

CT CISM Team Response to Newtown, CT

December 14, 2012  

ICISF Newsletter Lifenet March, 2013

            Friday, December 14th, 2012, started off as a typical morning.  The weather was good – clear and cool, typical for a December morning just weeks before the holidays.  People were at work, kids were at school, and just before 9:30am events started to unfold that would forever change a little town called Newtown, specifically the Sandy Hook section.

            A young gunman confronted his mother at their house in Newtown, allegedly killing her in her sleep.  He then loaded two handguns, a shotgun, and an assault rifle into his mom’s car, and drove away.  After stopping once or twice, he drove down a driveway past the Sandy Hook Fire Department (SHFD), arriving at the entrance to the Elementary School.  Taking the assault rifle from the trunk, and with the two semi-automatic hand guns, he proceeded to the secured front door. 

            Unable to get in by normal means, he fired multiple rounds through the glass alongside the door to create an opening.  Once inside, he encountered several school staff and administrators, and began firing upon them.  He moved toward the office, and after staff put the school’s public address system on so that the entire school would know what was occurring, he killed the principal. 

            The gunman then went to a first grade classroom.  Once inside, he began firing the assault rifle, hitting each child and teacher multiple times.  By this time, 911 calls were being placed from other parts of the building and both the local Newtown Police and State Police were responding.  Within minutes, the first Newtown officer had arrived, and while the gunman was still shooting in the second classroom he was in, the police entered the building.  Apparently realizing that time was short before a confrontation, the gunman purportedly took his own life.

            Police began responding to the school in numbers not seen in this small town.  During several of the debriefings that would take place in the subsequent days, the answer to the question “tell us what made you first understand that this was going to be a bad incident” was the number and speed of arriving police vehicles. 

            As soon as it was apparent that there were injuries, both the Newtown EMS and Sandy Hook Fire Department were dispatched.  Several members of the SHFD were at the station, located about 1,000 feet from the school.  They moved their rescue truck as close as they could to the police vehicles that were crowded close to the school.  Newtown Police Officers assessed the victims very early to determine their chances of survival and carried those to waiting rescue crews outside.  Every adult and every child was carefully checked for any signs of life. 

            When it was determined to be safe, the remaining 600+ children and staff were evacuated to the Sandy Hook firehouse by running past the classrooms that incurred heavy casualties.  Once outside, they ran down the road.  Sandy Hook fire mobilized its membership and auxiliary to assist school staff in caring for the children, and to begin the process of reuniting students with their parents. 

            Along with this process came the almost unbearable task of notifying 20 sets of arriving parents, that their children were not at the fire house – that they were either still in the school or were being transported.  The two children who were transported, along with 18 of their classmates all succumbed to their injuries.  Given that class lists were in disarray due to the gunfire in the office, that the teachers of the two classrooms and the Principal were all dead, the names of the children lost were not readily available.  This resulted in the notification being more like a process of elimination if their children were not at the firehouse. 

            An hour or two after the incident, the building and neighborhood were still in lockdown as police searched to ensure there were no accomplices.  The first shots occurred at about 9:30am, and the last person hiding in the school was found inside an inner closet at about 1:30pm.

            The Connecticut state CISM Team was activated shortly after 11:00am, after being requested by Newtown EMS, who were serving until this time as the coordinator for support services.  It was apparent that Sandy Hook Fire, the Police and other emergency services were inundated with the demands of an active crime scene, and the need to care for the many children still in the firehouse.  A leadership team from the CT CISM Team consisting of the Operations Director, Deputy Operations Director, Mental Health Coordinator and several other senior members met in a conference room at Newtown EMS – about 2 miles away from the scene at about 12:30. 

            The CT CISM Team instituted its own Incident Command System and assigned various duties.  A small contingent was asked to provide immediate interventions for crews that were on scene and transported several of the critically injured.  Other members of the team were assigned to be liaisons with the various target groups – one was assigned to EMS, another to the School System, another to the Police Department, and another to the Fire Department.  Members reached out via cellular communications where possible, but it quickly became apparent that the information volume flowing among agencies required that any meaningful conversation needed to be face-to-face.

            The CT CISM Team Mental Health Director and Fire Service coordinator went to the Sandy Hook firehouse – getting there in the back of an ambulance complements of Newtown EMS, as there was no other way to move around town due to the volume of residents, parents, and incredible amounts of arriving media.  After what took about 20 minutes for a normal 5 minute ride, team members arrived at a sight that seemed surreal.  Parents were still arriving to find out if their children were among the fortunate to be alive.  Police officers were realizing the impact of what they had seen and several were breaking down.  Four helicopters were circling above consisting of news agencies and at least one from law enforcement.  The parents that were notified that their children were not alive exhibited significant and inconsolable distress.  Sandy Hook Firefighters and members of their Ladies Auxiliary were exposed to the overwhelming onslaught of the chaos that had invaded their small firehouse.   

            Our Team members met with the Fire Chief to establish a line of communication and set up an off-site location for immediate interventions as needed.  The team also met with representatives another ICISF recognized team in our state, the Connecticut State Police Team.  State Department of Health Services staff was present and a plan was initiated to interact with them as well.  One of our team members was assigned to work with the CSP CISM team to coordinate interventions at the scene, as he also serves as a CSP Chaplain.  He then relayed information from the scene to the CISM staging area established at the Newtown EMS facility.

            The CT CISM Team member assigned to the Police Department is a Police Chief in a nearby town.  He met with the Public Safety EAP Director, and assisted with the coordination of several early interventions for police first responders.  He remained to assist with the operational and logistical planning for scene coverage and to continue police operations. 

            Small group defusings of various groups of law enforcement took place at their Police Headquarters.  The first responders, the detectives, the school resource officers, the Communications Center staff etc. all met in homogeneous groups at various times to defuse.  EAP staff remained at the Police HQ throughout the night to provide one-on-one interventions as needed.

            The school system was doing an excellent job of bringing in area psychological support, best described as a school system mutual aid agreement, along with two large area hospitals sending in crisis support teams for the staff, parents, and children affected.  One member of our team, who worked extensively with an incident earlier in the year involving a child killed in a wood chipper, put that school system’s Superintendent in contact with the Newtown Superintendent.  We maintained contact to make sure the schools, parents, and children were receiving needed support.

            Another phenomenon that was quickly developing was the arrival and freelancing of various well-intentioned people.  By early afternoon, people arrived hoping to help all of the first responders, many of whom were self proclaimed trauma experts.  There were even complete teams, trained in ICISF standards but not recognized by ICISF, who showed up ready to go to work on anyone who would lend them an ear.  The CT CISM Team began attempting to control the CISM response between all agencies and limit the interaction of non-authorized groups and individuals with the chiefs of services all of whom were apparently overwhelmed.  Contact and coordination also took place between the CT CISM Team and two local Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that were working for various public employee groups.

            Well intentioned politicians also came to visit.  The Governor did a very good job providing a Crisis Management Briefing Friday afternoon.  Accompanying him were our two US Senators and a Senator Elect, several members of Congress, and State and local leaders.

            By late afternoon Friday, the final counts of casualties inside the school and those transported were known – 20 children, 6 staff, the mother of the gunman and the gunman.  A revolving door of small group sessions (defusings or five phase debriefings) was being conducted by CT CISM Team members in the various nooks and crannies inside the Newtown EMS facility. 

            Saturday brought several smaller group interventions for groups with similar tasks and/or exposure levels.  A large Crisis Management Briefing was held at the Sandy Hook firehouse for all interested first responders.  The session appeared beneficial.  Plans were made to provide one or more debriefings Monday evening to attempt to get the public safety agencies back into service to support the rest of the community who were grieving for those lost, for their school, for their small town privacy that had been lost on Friday.

            Saturday the CT CISM Team communicated early with various statewide organizations who routinely use our services.  The purpose was to let them know that while our team was very busy helping in Newtown, that they should not hesitate contacting us for assistance.  In fact due to the potential collateral distress from this incident, they were encouraged to contact us for incidents that might not normally seem as traumatic to first responders.

            The CT CISM Team received a request for some individual peer support on Sunday (12/16).  Team members that had not yet been in Newtown were sent in to work with several of the first responders.  The town was seemed overwhelmed with outsiders, including TV satellite trucks creating a profound media presence.  When President Obama arrived, his motorcade and support/security staff further crippled the transportation in this little town.

            Monday (12/17) late afternoon, the CT CISM Team assembled.  Leaders met at the Newtown EMS facility, and the locations for where the evening debriefings would take place were finalized.  Two separate sessions would be conducted – one at the Town Hall in a private area for EMS personnel, and a second at Sandy Hook Fire for their firefighters and Ladies Auxiliary members.  

            The debriefing at Sandy Hook Fire turned out to be larger than ideal, but due to the close knit organization, it was decided to keep the group as a whole – 52 participants were there.  Time was made for every person to be able to fully participate, and they did.  We followed the seven phase debriefing, going around the room allowing everyone the opportunity to speak about their roles.  The stories of first hand exposure to the children when they arrived at the firehouse, to parents both elated and grieving, to setting up support for the police late that Friday night when the victims were removed, were some of the most chilling accounts one could imagine.  Near the end, a police officer who was part of the session made the comment that while everyone may feel that they were helpless and could do nothing to save lives at the scene, the presence of firefighters in bunker gear next to shiny trucks made officers feel safe as they exited the building. 

            The CT CISM Team that facilitated the Sandy Hook debriefing feels it was a huge success.  The department had previously cancelled both the Christmas party that they put on for children in the town, as well as their own gathering.  It was decided after the debriefing that both events would go on as scheduled, although the children’s party would be done off-site, away from the firehouse since it was located next to the school.  It was learned that along with Santa Clause arriving on a Sandy Hook engine, one little girl – the lone survivor of one of the classrooms, also accompanied Santa in the engine.  That was a huge boost for Sandy Hook Fire.

            CT CISM Team members stayed late into the evening at the Sand Hook fire house talking and socializing with firefighters, Ladies Auxiliary, and members of law enforcement who were still using the fire house as their command post.  Leaving the facility at the end of an incredibly intense evening, one could not help but walk out into the night feeling a great sense of accomplishment.  But as the team walked out the door of the firehouse into the cold rain, the living memorial alongside the entrance to the school driveway was being viewed and added to by many even at midnight.  Twenty live Christmas trees had been erected, one for each child, and visitors from all over were bringing ornaments, candles, bouquets of flowers, cards, childrens’ toys – again, over the top overwhelming. 

            For our own Team, we kept several of our best providers away from Newtown so they would be able to be there for those who worked the incident.  A gathering was held on Wednesday (12/19) where members had the opportunity to talk among themselves.  Many team members had follow-up conversations after that night to make sure there were no lasting impacts from the events in Newtown.  The number of children involved, as well as the number of CT CISM Team Members that are parents made this response especially challenging.

            On Friday, December 21st, all sworn members of the Newtown Police Department met. After remarks by the Chief and Captain, all uniformed officers participated in a debriefing, and then were relieved of duties for the first time in a week.  Funerals for children had been completed, and the town was now being covered by police department staff from Fairfield County.  It was also arranged that all police department officers and communications staff were relieved of duties for Christmas Day to spend that day with their families.

            On January 23rd, a session was conducted at the Sandy Hook firehouse.  The CT CISM Team chose to have firefighters review the events since the debriefing on December 17th took place.  A review of how members had been doing in their efforts to get back to “business as usual,” and a discussion of the Red Cross phases of how people recover after a disaster were conducted.  It was reassuring to note that no members had stopped responding to calls, or left the department since the event.  In fact there appeared to be more activity from members who had previously reduced their commitment to the organization.  Members were advised to continue to watch for signs or symptoms of significant critical incident stress.

            As for lessons learned, several points have become evident.  It was extremely important for the team to be closely connected to ensure the broadest possible coverage of such a large group of responders.  We did this well.  Not only were our services critical in supporting the emotional needs of the emergency responders, but the timeliness of our response was equally imperative.  The response was a good blend of police, fire, EMS and mental health professionals.  Plenty of hand-out informational material was available to be provided to all emergency responders.  Confidentiality was adhered to under extreme media attention.

            Things to improve include better coordination of changing venues when sites for interventions changed.  Our team’s ability to be identified beyond ID Tags was discussed and plans are underway for uniformed embroidered clothing/vests to easily identify team members at large events.  It would have helped to know who was leading which intervention in advance – while at all times venues were coordinated, last minute leadership/facilitator changes led to some confusion.  Even though our Team has done some pre-incident education over the past year, more should be done to train first responders in advance on CISM coping skills.

            In the days and weeks following the incident, several holidays passed, many funerals were conducted, living memorials grew, and little by little life got back to normal – however that would now be conceptualized in this small community in Western Connecticut.  The CT CISM Team has maintained close contact with the various agencies and will no doubt be conducting various interventions with individuals and groups after the New Year, and on anniversaries of the tragic event.

            The CT CISM Team would like to thank all of its members who gave incredible amounts of time during some of the hardest conditions, and also thanks the ICISF for its support throughout the event.  Knowing the offers of backup were made by so many from around the world gave our team added strength to provide some of the best support services any first responder and town could hope for.