Managing the Incident

Jefferson County Sheriff's Office on Scene

Lt. Terry Manwaring, SWAT commander for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, was the first member of the Jefferson County command staff to arrive at Columbine High School. Manwaring had been patrolling in the foothills 13 miles to the west and immediately responded to the school, ordering the SWAT team and the command staff to be paged as he went. At approximately 11:36 a.m., Manwaring parked his patrol car in the middle of the intersection of Pierce and Leawood Streets a short distance to the north of the school, thus establishing the original position of the incident command center.

Three minutes later, Sgt. Phil Hy of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office arrived on scene. Hy previously had been the support supervisor for the SWAT team and he understood Manwaring's urgent need for information about what was happening at the school in front of them. Hy began trying to decipher the radio traffic exploding over the airwaves and piece together what information he could.

The third Jefferson County supervisor to arrive at the forming command post on Leawood and Pierce was Lt. David Walcher. Arriving at approximately 11:45 a.m., Walcher parked behind Manwaring's patrol car and was quickly briefed by Manwaring and Hy as the SWAT leader donned his tactical gear. Walcher was uniquely qualified to handle the incident command role because he was thoroughly SWAT trained. He had been with the Jefferson County SWAT team for seven years, coming off the team exactly one year before the Columbine incident. Walcher was also the second ranking Jefferson County officer currently at the scene, and he would manage the incident minute to minute as it unfolded managed by using a structured Incident Management System (IMS).

Sheriff John P. Stone and Undersheriff John Dunaway were at the county's government center in Golden when they were informed that shots had been fired at the south Jefferson County high school. They hurried to the scene in separate cars, Dunaway arriving before the Sheriff. In his role as chief operations officer, the Undersheriff named Walcher as incident commander and authorized SWAT to make entry into the school.

Sheriff Stone, having been a commissioner in the county for 12 years, knew immediately who to contact and what resources would be available to the Sheriff's Office in response to the situation. He made those first calls as he drove to the site.

Other Agencies Respond

At 11:32 a.m. Deputy Paul Magor, the first patrol deputy dispatched to the high school, radioed for mutual aid. A metro-wide community response already had begun to organize and other law enforcement units and emergency personnel and equipment were beginning to arrive on scene. Later reports by law enforcement described the scene as "the world just descending upon Pierce Street. Within minutes, there were hundreds of people showing up from all kinds of different agencies, all kinds of different ranks." In all, 35 different law enforcement agencies, 11 fire and EMS agencies and nearly 1,000 personnel would respond.

Command Post Organized

Within the next few minutes, scores of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services personnel arrived at the scene, increasing the chaos, intensity and difficulty of managing the incident. Also arriving to offer any assistance necessary from their respective agencies and to work with Walcher were:

  • Littleton Fire Department Chief Bill Pessemier
  • Littleton Fire Department Division Chief Chuck Burdick
  • Denver Police Department Division Chief Gerry Whitman
  • Denver Police Department Captain Mike O'Neill
  • Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office Captain Bob Armstrong
  • Littleton Police Department Commander Bob Brandt
  • Littleton Police Department Sergeant Bill Black
  • Colorado State Patrol Major John Wise

Shouting over the constant roar of so many police, emergency, and fire vehicles arriving and television news helicopters hovering overhead, the command officers quickly began to identify and coordinate the tasks before them.

Working alongside Walcher at the command post was Littleton Fire Chief Pessemier, head of the Littleton Fire Department whose jurisdiction included Columbine High School. While the city of Littleton has a population of 40,000, its fire district serves nearly 190,000 and has partnerships with 16 separate law enforcement agencies. Because Columbine was in Littleton's fire district, the department was responsible for the fire and EMS response to the incident.

Littleton Fire Chief Pessemier and Division Chief Burdick took over the management of the medical issues from their first arriving Battalion Chief, Ray Rayne. Medical concerns included setting up four triage areas, transporting the wounded, and coordinating a joint effort rescue of wounded students in an active situation with law enforcement personnel providing protective cover fire. They also made plans for any fire-related issues that might occur at or in the school. Their coordination was crucial due to the task at hand and the number of different agencies they managed by using a structured Fire Incident Management System.

Chief Whitman and Captain O'Neill were tasked with deploying the eventual hundreds of Denver Police officers who came to Columbine. The Denver Police Department was heavily involved from the outset of the incident and continued with that involvement throughout the day. As their officers arrived, they were involved with Jefferson County Sheriff's Office personnel in initial rescues, gunfire, protection of evacuees, SWAT, perimeter, traffic control, explosive ordinance, investigation and interviews, as well as the crime scene.

Captain Armstrong, likewise, volunteered the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office to assist in any way necessary. Captain Armstrong worked with the Jefferson County School District to utilize buses in the transportation of evacuated students to Leawood Elementary School. Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office was also heavily involved in the investigation, explosive ordinance issues, perimeter, and response to local hospitals.

Commander Brandt, who in turn requested Sgt. Bill Black to assist him, was asked to coordinate the SWAT teams that had been deployed and deploy other SWAT team members as they arrived at Columbine and were needed.

They readily accepted that challenge and worked with other SWAT commanders as the incident unfolded.

Major Wise, along with numerous Colorado State Patrol troopers, assisted wherever possible. The CSP was used extensively in traffic control and setting up perimeters at the scene.

Concerns to be Addressed

In the next few hours, those at the command post would be required to address a myriad of concerns, including bombs, hostages, snipers, multiple shooters, fire, odors of natural gas, the media, air and ground traffic, evacuations within the school and the neighborhoods, alarms, suspects, suspect's homes and vehicles, other potential sites, witness interviews, organization of responding agencies, injured victims, fleeing students and frantic parents.

Information was coming into the command post from various sources each jurisdiction was listening to its own officers or communications centers and sharing that information with the others.

Hy remained in his patrol vehicle on Pierce Street near the developing command post.With him sat a Jefferson County Sheriff's deputy taking notes and writing down the significant radio traffic.

Hy was trying to supply Walcher and others at the command post with updated information on what was occurring at the high school and who the suspects might be. Reports from students and staff who had escaped, and even from some on cell phones still inside the school, mentioned up to eight gunmen in paramilitary gear, armed with grenades and automatic weapons. From those descriptions, the command staff and many of the first responders thought the situation sounded like they might be confronting some type of terrorist unit.

Setting Up Perimeters

Those at the command post realized the necessity of setting up perimeters around the 250,000 square-foot school. In an incident such as the one unfolding at Columbine, the fear was that the suspects would escape and move into the larger surrounding community, escalating the situation into an even worse scenario. Perimeters are a type of law enforcement strategy that helps contain the suspects and prevents them from fleeing a site, getting through the police lines and creating havoc in adjoining neighborhoods or businesses.

Containment was a major concern for the command post. Columbine is a large school of 1,945 students, a majority of whom were fleeing the building through one of the school's 25 exits and entrances. The suspects easily could escape as well by blending in with the students or staff coming out. The school needed to be sealed off as protection for the children and the surrounding neighborhoods, schools and businesses.

With the help of so many jurisdictions that responded to the call for mutual aid, a strong inner perimeter was set up quickly. The first pieces of the perimeter were in place by the Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies responding to the scene. By 11:30 a.m., within four minutes of the school resource officer's reports of shots being fired in the building and the need for help, six Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputies were on scene and in position, covering the school exits on the south, west and east sides. By 11:50 a.m., two more Jefferson County Sheriff's officers were on the north side. The command post, using both Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies and Denver police, strengthened that inner perimeter.

The first perimeter was set up as close as possible around the school, providing containment but also keeping other people from getting too near the school. A second perimeter went in around the first, reinforcing the primary circle of containment.

Capt. Armstrong of the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office quickly coordinated setting up the outer perimeter of law enforcement personnel, directing the Denver Police Department and the Colorado State Patrol to form that external perimeter along Bowles on the north, Coal Mine and Polk on the south, Leawood and Pierce to the east and Wadsworth on the west. That outer perimeter provided a buffer for the inner perimeter, preventing any suspects from escaping the general vicinity, keeping better control of traffic coming into the area, providing greater security for the command post, providing a safe area for the media, and coordinating and assisting with parents responding to the site.

Setting Up Triage

While the perimeters were being established, Littleton Fire was setting up the triage areas to the south and east of the school. Injured students and staff first were taken to one of four triage areas and then treated and transported, if necessary, to an area hospital. Area hospitals were now on standby to receive the injured. A total of 10 students were transported in the first hour, another 10 in the second hour, and four after that.

Despite the serious condition of some of those wounded, everyone triaged and transported to a local hospital survived.

Communication Problems

One of the technical problems of the Columbine incident was the inability of different agencies to communicate effectively because they were operating on different radio systems and different channels. Many were equipped with older radio networks that made it extremely difficult to communicate with one another. Incompatible radio frequencies combined with 47 different agencies on scene made communication a major challenge.

As the first SWAT team made its initial entry into the school, the problem of multiple jurisdictions with different radio frequencies was just as apparent. SWAT inside the school could communicate with one another on a protected channel; that is, if they could hear over fire alarms, strobes, and sprinkler systems. The real difficulty was the communication between SWAT and the command post and the communications center. In most situations, SWAT members will not give locations during an operation because they do not want to give any knowledge or advantage to the suspects. However, the SWAT teams inside the school had difficulty receiving information from the outside as they worked their way through the school building.

The Sheriff's Office utilizes a mobile command post vehicle for major incidents. Equipped with a mobile dispatch center, the Command 500 bus was in place on Pierce Street and operational at 12:39 p.m. It provided a quieter place than the hood of a patrol car for Walcher and the command post team to manage the crisis and provided a working area for dispatchers to assist the tactical operation. For the balance of the operation, Hy assisted the dispatchers in the command post with the enormous task of managing the information at the scene and with headquarters.

Investigation Begins

It was apparent at the onset that students and staff fleeing the school could supply vital information about what might be occurring at the school, information that would benefit SWAT and the first responders. Lt. John Kiekbusch of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Investigation Division began to coordinate the initial interviewing. A large contingent of investigators from the Sheriff's Office, Denver and other police departments set up debriefing areas to interview students and staff, both in Clement and Leawood Parks and at Columbine Public Library and Leawood Elementary School. Kiekbusch and his staff were also standing by for the tactical situation to be completed so they could launch what they knew would be a massive investigation.

Tracking Movements and Evacuations by SWAT

During the afternoon hours, the command post attempted to keep updated on the movements and evacuations of the SWAT teams inside the school. Two SWAT marksmen on neighborhood roofs relayed information, as did investigators interviewing students evacuated from various classrooms and storage areas.

The staging and deployment of the various SWAT teams responding to Columbine were coordinated by Patrol Commander Brandt and Sgt. Black of the Littleton Police Department. As the secondary teams arrived, they were staged but not sent into the building until the first teams had made their initial sweep and had found the gunmen and the bodies in the library. (Fresh SWAT teams would be deployed later by the command center to sweep the building again looking for possible victims or suspects still hiding).

At 3:22 p.m., one unit of the Jefferson County SWAT team reported that they had made entry into the library. They had found one victim alive and were arranging for her evacuation. But there also were 12 bodies, two of whom matched the general description of the suspects, and numerous explosives. SWAT requested the Jefferson County Bomb Squad.

Fatalities Acknowledged

Two and possibly three fatalities had been discovered on the outside of the school. Six victims already had been rushed to area hospitals with life-threatening wounds, some whose wounds were so severe that medics referred to them as "DOA" (in all probability "deceased on arrival" at the hospital.) SWAT had reported a teacher with massive wounds had died in a science classroom. Adding the number of dead found in the library to the other known dead and adding the critically injured being transported to area hospitals, the command post announced that fatalities of the Columbine tragedy could be as many as 25. "Up to 25 dead" was the number reluctantly passed on to the media as Sheriff Stone and Public Information Officer Steve Davis held a 4 p.m. news briefing.

Final Sweeps

The SWAT teams had just finished a grueling physical and emotional search of Columbine High School. They had cleared a 250,000 square-foot building with 75 classrooms on two different levels and 25 exterior doors. Searching the school could be compared to searching 100 homes that are 2,500 (average size house) square feet in size. On a normal school day, the building would be populated with 1,945 students, 120 teachers and 20 staff members.

SWAT teams do not generally search buildings for two to four hours. Taking into account the SWAT team's fatigue, as well as the size and expanse of Columbine High School, the command post was concerned that the first teams could have overlooked innocent victims or suspects still hiding somewhere in the building. Reports from the preliminary investigation included numerous opinions of a third, and possibly more, gunmen. The command post called for fresh SWAT teams and 60 to 80 officers stepped forward.

There were unexploded bombs throughout the building, outside on the school grounds and in some of the vehicles in the student parking lots. Members of the bomb squad accompanied the SWAT teams on their final sweeps beginning later that night. The teams did not find any additional persons and cleared the school at about 11:50 p.m.

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