Recent exercise, police relationships factors in Capital Gazette response

Chief Marc Bashoor

What happened: At 2:34 p.m., on June 28, the Anne Arundel County (Md.) 911 center began receiving 911 calls for a shooting at the offices of the Capital Gazette Newspaper, an affiliate of the Baltimore Sun, just outside the city of Annapolis. Police officers arrived within 60 seconds of the initial dispatch, with standard fire and EMS units also responding.

A 38-year-old gunman with a long-standing vendetta with the newspaper entered and opened fire inside the newspaper offices. Five newspaper employees were killed and several others received varying degrees of injury. Police officers were able to quickly locate and take the suspect into custody – without further incident.

Setting the scene

The Capital Gazette offices are located close to the Annapolis Mall, just outside the city of Annapolis border in Anne Arundel County. The location is approximately 35 miles east of Washington, D.C., and 35 miles south of Baltimore, Md.

The Anne Arundel County and Annapolis Fire Departments operate within automatic mutual aid agreements, with both agencies dispatched through the Anne Arundel County 911 and dispatch center.

Anne Arundel County rescue task force medics and the County’s medical director were working a call-out just prior to this incident. They had recently cleared that incident with law enforcement officials and were in the middle of returning equipment to service when this call was dispatched.

Active shooter preparation and response

The Anne Arundel County Fire and Police Departments, like many fire and police departments nationally, have collaborated and conducted training for active shooter (or active-assailant) scenarios. The Anne Arundel County Police have coordinated the active-assailant training, not only with the fire and EMS departments, but also with their state and federal partners. All of the Anne Arundel County paramedics are in the process of training to the rescue task force standard, as part of their skills recertification process. Firefighters and EMS providers have also trained with their federal partners in this effort.

At the time of this incident, the AACoFD protocol for ballistic protection was response with a cache of equipment from their logistics warehouse. It is important to note the AACoFD is in the middle of the process of formalizing a more distributed ballistic protection effort to field-supervisor vehicles. The primary mutual aid jurisdiction at this location, Annapolis City Fire and EMS, has ballistic vests and helmets on each responding unit.

A couple of weeks prior, local authorities held an active assailant exercise at the Annapolis Mall, essentially across the street from this real-world Bestgate Road location. The recent exercise proved invaluable, both in training and in real-life. The family reunification center used in the exercise was the same family reunification center used in this real-world incident. Many of the people operating at the incident also operated at the exercise, and for many of the paramedics at the exercise, this was the first time they were able to exercise the RTF concepts in real life.

Fire and EMS units were met by law enforcement officers from the outset. As RTF crews were assembled, law enforcement officers met with and introduced themselves to each fire and EMS Department component of the task force. Chief Graves reported that the police reassured fire and EMS personnel, that, “we’ve got your back – if you need anything, all you have to do is say it.”

This impromptu introduction and laying of ground rules went a long way toward easing latent fears amongst those who had not previously entered such a live environment. With the quick response of law enforcement, fire and EMS units were afforded quick access to the hot zone and patients.

While the shooter was quickly apprehended, there were many unknowns – including the suspected presence of explosives and the possibility of as-yet-apprehended accomplices (there were none). While several suspected devises were examined, only smoke grenades were identified on scene. RTF members entered the building, triaged victims and evacuated the injured. The Annapolis City Fire and Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department Bomb Squads, along with the bomb squad assets from the Office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal, responded for the suspected explosive devices.

Additional resources for the incident were assembled from BWI Airport and the close-by Naval Academy. Numerous other jurisdictions provided back-fill support and offered assistance to the AACoFD. By all accounts at this point, mutual aid resources and plans worked perfectly not only to serve the incident, but also to ensure the rest of the local call volumes were covered.

In all, five victims succumbed to their injuries, while two additional victims were transported to Anne Arundel General Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The quick response of law enforcement appears to have been the primary factor in stopping the killings.

Top takeaways on the Capital Gazette response

Here are the top takeaways on this incident and the elements that made the response successful:

1. Make active-assailant training a priority for your organization

Make active-assailant training a priority for your organization. Chief Graves reminds us, “If you’re balancing training needs and trying to determine what’s really important, I assure you active-assailant training is really important. It’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll have to deal with this.” Training and exercising the concepts identified in NFPA 3000 will be critical to your success. The exercise held a couple of weeks prior was all too surreal when this active-assailant incident occurred across the street from the exercise location.

2. Work toward a formal unified command post

Like many fire departments that practice incident command on a daily basis, it is not always textbook unified command when working with law enforcement agencies in the early stages of dynamic shooting incidents. Early relationship-building and agency tag-teaming may be the easiest way to come close to early UC in these quick and dynamic situations.

As scenes stabilize and draw out in time, law enforcement agencies are more likely to fold into the UC concept. Take what you can get from the supervisor tag-team concept in the beginning, working towards a formal UC post as the incident continues to unfold. Chief Graves’s established relationships with police supervisors ensured they were able to check the pulse at the agency-head level to ensure appropriate command and control functions were fulfilled.

3. Provide on-site support for all responders

Peer support, critical incident stress management and crisis response were all necessary to make it through this incident. Ensure everyone from the first 911 callers and dispatchers, through fire, EMS, law enforcement, mutual aid partners and witnesses have access to on-site help as needed. Continued CISM and peer support follow-up is important to ensure your membership is successfully dealing with the stresses of such an incident.

4. Consider on-the-fly radio encryption capability

Although the police department has limited encryption capability, as is the case in many fire departments, encryption has not been part of the AACoFD system.

At one point in the incident, the radio service provider was able to monitor that thousands of listeners were tuned into the AACoFD frequencies. Considering the scene was still unstable and accomplices were unknown, it is reasonable to understand why the transmissions about family reunification locations and specific operational tasks should not be made publicly available.

This incident clearly demonstrated the value for encryption capability in fire, EMS and law enforcement radios. A new radio system under design will allow fire dispatchers to transition to an encrypted mode, at the flip of a switch, without users having to make any changes. Consider on-the-fly encryption capability in your next radio system upgrade.

Are you ready to respond to an active shooter?

Anne Arundel County considers itself one of the safest large jurisdictions in the United States. Strategically located with quick access to Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Annapolis, the County is attractive to many local, state and federal workers – including a large populace of law enforcement members. This incident demonstrates that as Chief Graves noted, regardless of how safe you think you may be, it’s likely not a matter of if an active-shooter situation will strike your community, but when.

Are you ready? Take care, be safe and stay smart!

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