By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief
Six months ago a 24-year-old gunman stepped into a packed movie theater in Aurora. Colo., opened fire and left 12 dead and 59 wounded. All of the world was watching Aurora Fire Chief Mike Garcia. Now, as Garcia joins the world in watching the tragedy unfold in Newtown, Conn., he has some perspective to offer.
What went through your mind when you learned of this?
I got a call from my wife that there’d been another mass shooting. I went down and turned on the TV. I’m in shock, probably just like the nation. But as I’m in shock, there are flashbacks of what my fire department and what I personally went through, the concern for the firefighters and first responders on the scene and what they’re going to go through.
As Fire Chief of Aurora, my first concern was for the victims, but on equal footing, was for the men and women on my department who responded. I always take very diligent approach in making sure those who responded are being taken care of and they know all of the resources that are available.
There isn’t a day that I come to work and don’t think of our firefighters and their families. As you know, you don’t just leave it at work when you are a firefighter. It impacts your family and close circle of friends.
My heart goes to Newtown, Conn. I know right now they are professional and doing their job. But when it is all said and done, they need to take each other’s company and share their experiences. They need to be introduced to what professional services that city provides.
An event like this is not something that you can internalize.
What advice do you have for the chief?
They should not isolate themselves. They need to bring in their executive staff and open up to the community. He also needs to move very carefully because he is now in a fishbowl. Sometimes you are in a position where the best decisions may not be the right decisions for everybody. There will be media, scrutiny and Monday-morning quarterbacking. That’s to be expected and the chief will need to be very supportive of his team and his city.
How did you handle that attention?
The only way you can handle the media coming at you in so many directions is a team approach. Our mayor, police chief, city council and PIO all met to come up with a strategy on how to ensure that the residents were taken care of.
The fire department did such a courageous job that day and they need to hear that from their fire chief.
The other thing that helped me tremendously is that I had built great relationships with those departments that provide mutual aid and the police. By having built those relationships, I was able to know who I was talking to that day and that brought us closer together.
I did get phone calls from other fire chiefs who had been through this. The retired operations fire chief from Columbine send me a really good email with the lessons he’d learned. I shared all of this with the men and women of my department when I’d get correspondence. That helped out a lot.
We’re under a gag order and not able to tell our story. It has been detrimental. It is tough. Firefighters want to learn from one another. We did a post-incident analysis and an after-action report, and we’re doing a third-party review. But we can’t share any of that until the gag order is lifted.
What advice do you have for those who want to better prepare?
They have to take the approach that it could happen in my community and if it does do I have the proper training, the relationships with everyone who will respond to incidents like that including federal.
Our shooter booby-trapped his apartment and that was another two-day operation where we had the federal government here and their bomb team. We’ve done a lot of training with our police on active shooters. We trained in many of our schools, but never thought we’d have a mass shooting in a theater.
There were 1,300 people at that theater and the congestion; having them all leaving is like a battle zone. It was midnight, 1,300 people in Batman costumes; it was a pretty scary scenario.
How did you handle the logistics nightmare?
We’re lucky that we had three major trauma centers within 3 minutes of our shooting. What saved a lot of lives that day was transporting in police vehicles, because the ambulances couldn’t get back in there because of the congestion of the crowd and the police officers coming in.
How long does the healing process take?
I’ve been on the job 35 years in July and I’ve seen some significant events in my career like any firefighter. But those things I don’t think you truly ever heal from them. I think you adapt, but it is always there. With the right support you learn to deal with it in a constructive way.
Those that get the professional help will do well. Those that internalize it will have issue. Time will tell. Being able to talk about it is part of the therapy.
It is especially hard as the fire chief because no matter what you say or the message you give, there’s always someone there who is maybe going to take parts of it out of context. It takes a little courage to speak up on it.