By Lindsay A. Gross, Managing Editor
On April 20, 1999, Frank DeAngelis, the principal at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., had just offered a teacher a job, and he was running late. Shortly after arriving at the school a secretary ran into his office and said there was gunfire in the cafeteria. DeAngelis stepped out of his office, and the barrel of the gun he faced seemed like the size of a cannon. DeAngelis froze. “All I could think about was how it would feel to be shot,” he said. Then glass shattered. DeAngelis was able to usher several students to safety in the gymnasium only after a teacher coming up the staircase distracted the shooters in another direction. The teacher was shot fatally in the back.
Two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire around 11:19 a.m. that day. By noon, the shooters had taken their own lives after killing 13 students and teachers and wounding 21. The shooting was the deadliest for an American high school and the fourth deadliest in U.S. history.
Ten years later, DeAngelis and several public-safety leaders from Jefferson County — where the shooting occurred — and the surrounding area sat on a panel in Denver to discuss how far public-safety communications has come since the disaster. MissionCritical Communications Editor Sandi Wendelken was also a panel member. The event was sponsored and organized by Tyco Electronics Wireless Systems.
According to Jefferson County’s Sheriff Office police reports, it was difficult for separate agencies to communicate directly with one another during the shootings. Forty-six separate agencies operating on different emergency radio channels and in different parts of the radio bandwidth responded to the incident. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Littleton Fire Department, the two primary response agencies, both operated on VHF frequencies. The Colorado State Patrol also used VHF, but the Denver and Lakewood Police Departments and West Metro Fire Protection District used 800 MHz systems. Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and Littleton Police Department used an analog 800 MHz system, while the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office used digital 800 MHz trunked radios.
“Police officers weren’t able to talk to deputies who weren’t able to talk to emergency,” said Kevin Paletta, chief of police for the Lakewood Police Department. Each agency communicated predominantly with its own dispatch center. Communications between agencies often had to be relayed through their dispatch centers or through agency representatives at the incident command post.
In addition, public-safety agencies couldn’t communicate with victims inside the building during the shooting. However, since the Columbine shooting, information sharing is helping to close the response gap, DeAngelis said. “Everything has changed. [Educators and public safety] are better prepared for shooting situations at the school. And communications are so much better.”
According to Edward Ray, chief of the department of safety and security for Denver Public Schools (DPS), the school district approached the Denver Police Department (DPD) several years ago about creating interoperability between the schools and public safety. DPS now has its own talk group on the DPD network and school and police officials communicate daily. “How did we get it done? We just asked. It’s a necessity to be able to talk to each other without problems,” Ray said.
Grayson Robinson, sheriff of Arapahoe County, attributed the advancements in communications interoperability to funds made available by Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and other homeland-security grants. However, he said there is still more work to be done to continue to advance interoperability. “Radio communications is an integral part of serving our community,” Robinson said. “And our ability to serve our community is only good as long as we are able to keep it maintained and keep that technology at the cutting edge. We need to be prepared that funding sources may dry up. UASI and homeland-security efforts will only be funded for a few more cycles, and we need to be proactive about finding funding.”
Another complication during the Columbine shooting was poor in-building coverage, Paletta said. “We didn’t have repeaters that worked that far away from our agency,” he said. “Now we have mobile repeaters, and it’s becoming more common for schools to have bidirectional antennas.” Paletta noted a recent deadly car chase that encompassed several jurisdictions. “We all turned to the interoperability channel on our radio, and we were connected,” he said. “It was a nice feature to have."
All the panelists agreed that regardless of whether they have the most cutting-edge interoperable technology, it’s useless if everyone isn’t trained to use it. “It’s vital to constantly train everyone, at every level,” Ray said.