UM Responders Look for Lessons in Tragedy

By UM News

UM Responders Look for Lessons in Tragedy

By UM News
Members of the University of Miami first response teams remind us of resources available and what to do if crisis hits.

The first text message came through as he drove to an important meeting off campus. It was from a friend and said only that a shooting had occurred at a high school in Parkland, Florida, a Broward County municipality about an hour’s drive north of Miami.

David Rivero, chief of the University of Miami’s 29-officer police force, hoped for the best—that injuries, if any, would be minor and that no one would perish.

But as details of Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School emerged, Rivero learned the hard truth: another horrific shooting with mass casualties, this one allegedly carried out by an orphaned 19-year-old man with a troubled past who made his way inside the suburban school shortly before dismissal and proceeded down hallways, killing 17 people—students and teachers—and injuring at least 14 others with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle.

“My son once played a baseball game at that school, and my daughter taught at nearby Coral Springs Middle School,” said Rivero. “We all knew kids who went there, so this really hit home.”

Like the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland—which now ranks among the most deadly in American history—not only kindled a range of emotions in Rivero and other UM officials but also made them reflect on preventive measures the University has initiated over the years to respond to and deal with potential incidents like Wednesday’s tragedy.

Rivero arrived at UM as chief of police in 2006, a year before the Virginia Tech shooting in which a senior at that institution shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks. “I knew we couldn’t sit back and wait,” said Rivero. “We needed to be proactive.”

So he and the senior officers in his department initiated shelter-in-place protocols for the UM community to follow in the event of incidents like Wednesday’s, stressing that people should flee if possible and fight as a last resort.

“This is why we have our Emergency Notification Network (ENN), so we can rapidly notify the University community about life threatening emergencies which have impacted or may impact our campuses,” said Matthew Shpiner, director of emergency management. He noted the regular drills of UM’s ENN utilize text messages, automated phone calls, emails, campus phones, and indoor public address systems, among other methods.

A well-trained police force is also critical should a mass shooting occur, said Rivero. From advanced weapons and grappling tools to ballistic shields and helmets, all UMPD officers carry in their vehicles the equipment they need to stop an active shooter. “Getting through that door is the most important thing we ask our cops to do,” he said. “So we practice mustering up, responding quickly and breaching doors.”

Rivero praised the Broward police officers and fire-rescue personnel who responded to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, calling their actions phenomenal. “Even the adults at that school who were in the middle of the crisis did a great job in protecting those kids,” he said.

For Shpiner and John Gulla, the program coordinator in the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), Wednesday’s Parkland shooting also gave them pause to think. The two began analyzing the facts they gleaned from the horror unfolding on their TV and computer screens to answer one overarching question: Did the OEM need to reconsider its philosophical approach—its tactics and response options—to change the outcome if the unthinkable happened on one of the University’s campuses?

“Any time there is an event of national significance like this we have a conversation about what we know so far—emphasis on ‘so far’ because things change,” Shpiner said. “But we look at the little pieces we are aware of and test it against what we teach in our Active Shooter Response Training class. The unfortunate reality is we spend a lot of time thinking about these types of situations and praying that day never comes.”

The short answer to their question was no. But the longer answer is that it is up to us, to each and every one of us, to be a part of the solution and take the training the OEM has been teaching since 2013, and learn—and be empowered by—the words echoed by Rivero that could save lives: Run. Hide. Fight.

“Those are three words we teach, and three words alone aren’t a solution, but they are the start of providing information to translate into action,” Shpiner said. “We can’t have a cop in every room in every building every minute, so we have to empower members of our community to consider how to protect themselves by taking action that can change outcomes, and save their own lives.” 

To date, more than 8,000 members of the UM community have taken the Active Shooter Response course, and Shpiner recommends they take it again at least every three years. OEM also offers location-specific training, which departments and offices can sign up for after their members take the basic training. As Shpiner and Gulla, who teaches the Active Shooter Response and a new All-Hazards Response Training course, noted, many employees think they don’t have the option to hide because their offices have glass walls, or they can’t fight back, because they have no chance of being effective against a person with a weapon.

Run.Hide.Fight.

But, in the courses, they may learn they are wrong—if they learn the importance of what Gulla calls the three REs: recognize, respond, and report.

“There is always something that you can do,” Gulla said. “The key is we want people to take action based on information. We don’t want people approaching a threat from a solely instinctual standpoint. Your initial instinctual reaction may not be the best one. Pause, rapidly assess the information, then act on what you know.”

Pilar Tamburrino, assistant director of UM’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Program and a licensed mental health counselor, said her office is ready to help. “We’ve had so many of these shootings, and we try to let people know we are here and available to them,” she said. “We try to accommodate them as quickly as possible. If departments are struggling, we’ll arrange to go talk to the whole group.”

Tamburrino discourages people from watching too much news coverage of tragic incidents. “Listening over and over again re-traumatizes people,” she explained. “It can cause experiences you’ve had in your life to resurface, especially for parents, who may have fear of the unknown and fear of the climate we live in right now.”

She noted that FSAP staff members attend conferences every year with other universities. “The ones that have had mass shootings share what they did right and what they could have done differently,” she said.

Noting that FSAP collaborates with the Office of Emergency Management to provide the emotional component of the Active Shooter Response course, Tamburrino said there are signs one should look for that could help avert a tragedy like the one in Parkland, where the shooter had a disturbing social media profile. 

Gulla and Rivero agreed.

“That’s the point of the national If You See Something, Say Something campaign,” Gulla said. “Anyone anywhere can and should report what they perceive to be suspicious or unusual activity or behavior, which was relevant in this most recent case.”

Rivero said there are always red flags. “The problem is that we sometimes minimize those red flags. People become shy about reporting it to police, and they don’t make the call. We stress that if you have a gut feeling, if you sense something, call us. At least it gives us the opportunity to run some checks, talk to the person, run it through all the intelligence databanks we have at our disposal. That gives us the opportunity to get to the bottom of what’s causing concern. We can start the ball rolling. If we don’t know about it, then there’s zero chance of stopping it.”

After nearly 40 years working in law enforcement—Rivero spent 27 years on the Miami Police force before coming to UM—his job has gotten harder. “We’re all ready to go through that door. But it’s handling the fear and putting our community at ease that’s gotten more difficult,” he explained. “How do we go into schools and hospitals and tell people that they’re going to be okay? That’s the hard part. That’s what keeps me awake.”

For more information visit Active Shooter Preparedness at the Office of Emergency Management.