On April 20, 1999, six people were on duty in the Jefferson County Communications Center, which had been moved to its new location just two weeks earlier. Four dispatchers, one supervisor and one emergency response specialist were staffing four radio and three telephone positions. The center manages communications traffic for all county departments, five law-enforcement agencies and 11 volunteer fire departments.
Initial 911 Reports
The first reports of the Columbine High School shootings were received in the communications center at 11:19 a.m. At that time, a citizen called 911 about an explosion in a field on the east side of Wadsworth Boulevard between Ken Caryl and Chatfield avenues.
A dispatcher transmitted the information to Deputy Paul Magor, who was patrolling in the area. Four minutes later, dispatch received a report of an injury at Columbine High School.
At 11:25 a.m., a caller from inside the school's library phoned 911.
In the next 40 minutes, dispatch received 31 emergency calls from people inside and outside the school relating information about the Columbine incident. The information was often sketchy and conflicting. Calls reported numerous gunmen in different locations throughout the school with varying types of weapons. Dispatchers had no time to verify the reports coming at them. They disseminated all the information received back to the command post and to the deputies on scene.
Community and Media Calls Begin
By 11:32 a.m., local media learned of trouble at Columbine High School and began contacting dispatch for more information. Calls from national and international media quickly followed, and, by midnight, the center had taken 339 calls from news organizations worldwide.
Other jurisdictions were relaying reports of the incident as well, and it was apparent that a major event was unfolding that would require a countywide, multiagency response.
To help coordinate those efforts, Capt. Ray Fleer, Lt. Dennis Potter and Lt. Jeff Shrader of the Sheriff's Office arrived at the communications center. While they coordinated communications and logistics with the county, cooperating agencies and officers on site, the dispatchers continued to take incoming calls.
On his way to the high school, Sheriff John P. Stone called Commissioner Pat Holloway and informed her of the initial reports. She relayed the information to County Administrator Ron Holliday, who hurried to the communications center with staff from the county's Public Information and Emergency Management departments. They were later joined by Holloway and Commissioner Rick Sheehan, and the five helped answer media calls and released county resources as needed.
Given the worldwide interest in the story, the communications center needed international calling capabilities. Communications Director Randy Smith coordinated that process and ordered extra phone batteries and supplies for people in the field.
Staffing Increased & Command Bus Dispatched
By 11:40 a.m., Dispatch Manager Barb Farland and Supervisor Cindy Cline had been paged to join Supervisor Karen Vitgenos in helping the staff field calls. Off-work dispatchers also heard of the incident and volunteered to work. By early afternoon, two people were staffing each radio and phone position, and the center had almost four times its normal staffing level. A technician from the local phone company, U.S. West, arrived on his own so he could help in case technical problems developed.
More and more officers were responding to Columbine High School, and the Sheriff's mobile command bus was sent to handle on-site communications. The bus arrived by 12:39 p.m., and it carried a team of three dispatchers with it.
Once the bus was on scene, it became the communications center for the incident command post. As a mobile communications unit, the bus is equipped with the same radio capabilities as the main center at the Sheriff's Office. The dispatchers in the bus handled communications among the SWAT teams and other on-site personnel and with headquarters.
Call Load Peaks at 200 Times Normal Level
For the next three days, dispatchers were put on mandatory 12-hour shifts. Other law enforcement agencies loaned their dispatchers to assist with the crisis, and a victim advocate/peer counselor was available to help dispatchers deal with the trauma.
For the next week, the stream of calls continued. Hundreds of reporters and citizens phoned simply to get updates about the event. At the peak of the crisis, the communications center handled almost 200 times its normal call load for a weekday. On April 20 alone, the staff took:
- 31 calls on 911 from 11:19 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- 88 calls on 911 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
- 114 calls on 911 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
During the busiest hour that day, dispatchers took 181 calls on the county's non-emergency number as well. Although cell-phone technologies have since changed, at the time of the Columbine shootings, 911 cell calls were received on the county's non-emergency number. Dispatch also managed radio traffic for other law enforcement incidents, fire and emergency medical calls and daily county business.
The staff answered every 911 call during the crisis, and the center experienced no technical difficulties.