APCO Seminar: Dispatchers on their Las Vegas shooting experiences

APCO’s Voices Behind the Incident seminar brought together dispatchers that responded to the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting to talk about their experiences and share insights

By Lexi Wessling

At the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ (APCO’s) annual conference last year, the organization hosted a professional development session titled The Voices Behind the Incident: A Discussion Panel With the Dispatchers Involved in the Las Vegas Shooting Event. The seminar featured Letha Lofton, communications specialist supervisor at Combined Communications Center of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue. 

Lofton was the on-duty supervisor at the time of the Route 91 Festival shooting on October 1, 2017, when an active shooter opened fire from a hotel window onto a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers below, leaving 58 dead and hundreds wounded. In this seminar, Lofton and seven other LVFR dispatchers described their experiences of the night they call 10/1 and imparted what they learned about large event communications and incident management. 

Photo/APCO Presentation Screengrab

Here are six key takeaways for large-scale incident management:

1. Be prepared for echo calls

During the shooting and its aftermath, the Route 91 concert venue area, which spans 10 acres, generated the numbers of calls Lofton’s dispatch center normally takes in one month. Amid the confusion and noise, it can be difficult to keep up, especially in the early stages of a crisis before much information has developed. 

What some dispatch centers may not know to expect, however, is the number of echo calls made by jumpy people who are erring on the side of caution, but whose calls don’t necessarily contain credible information. 

The trick is discerning what’s true from what’s false — and the genuine from the paranoid. 

“[When] we were getting these echo calls, we were like, ‘Okay, we have a shooter at New York-New York, now we have one at the MGM, there’s one at the Tropicana, oh, no, there’s one at the airport,’” Lofton said. “We didn’t know where the shooter is. So everyone’s mind is like, ‘Okay, are we under attack? Is this a terrorist attack? What’s going on?’

The echo calls just kept coming. To make matters more confusing, callers were reporting a wide range of threats from all over the strip, making it difficult for Lofton and her team to make sense of the situation and relay accurate information to police and fire crews

"After that we had a building fire at the Mandalay Bay, where the shooting is going on,” Lofton continued. “Are we going to send our people into that building fire? We don’t even know where the shooter is. So all of these things are going on. We have an explosive device at the Luxor. And then we have a suspicious package right on the east side of the festival. So all of these echo calls, in addition to the active calls, in addition to all of Clark County that’s still going on.”

2. Expect it to feel overwhelming

The seven dispatchers who accompanied Lofton were male and female, young and old, had as much experience as 18 years and as little as seven months at the time of the Route 91 shooting. Each of the dispatchers’ experiences were different, but they all shared common themes: feelings of helplessness, sadness, anger, shock, numbness. 

Mone Foster, a two-year veteran by October 2017, began her shift that night as usual. 

“Then I heard someone say there was an active shooter at the Route 91 Festival,” she said. “I immediately thought, ‘There’s no way this is real.’ After taking call after call and having to tell victims, ‘Help is on the way, I just don’t know when,’ I immediately felt helpless.” 

When Daryn Larson came in that evening, after the shooting had occurred, he wasn’t prepared for what greeted him.

"I walked into work and the first words out of [my coworker’s] mouth were, “Welcome to hell,’” the six-year veteran said. “I’ll never forget sitting down at the desk and seeing all of the pending calls all in red covering multiple screens. We never have pending calls, so to see there were pending calls at night was a sight [I’ll] never forget. That night I felt really helpless, We’re at work, watching the news and watching the numbers rise, and you couldn’t help [keeping] your eyes on the media at that point because you wanted to know the why. Why is this happening to us? Why is this happening in our city? And as the numbers rose, it was heartbreaking.”

For Joshua Fonesca, it wasn’t until a father called in looking for his son that he began to feel really helpless. 

“With something like this, it’s one [call] after the other – until you get the family member calling in looking for their loved one,” he said. “That was the first time that night I absolutely felt helpless. It was a dad. He said, ‘Look, my son’s at this event. I can’t reach him. How do I reach him?’ Now, American Red Cross acts fast, but 10, 15 minutes into the event, they’re not going to be able to act that fast. So you have to pretty much give up and say, ‘I can’t help you, sir.’ ‘Well, what do I do? I’m trying to contact him.’ It takes everything in you to say, ‘Sir, your best chance of getting a hold of this person is by you trying and trying yourself. I’m sure there’ll be a number set up that you can call, but right now there isn’t. So I’m sorry, but you have to do it.’ And so you hang up that call and you don’t have time to think, it’s right on to the next one.”

Eleven-year veteran Anthony Bruno had just gotten off duty when he heard the news and went back to work. 

“The second I walked in it was chaos,” he said. “In my eyes, organized chaos. We had a board where everyone was posting stuff, people walking back and forth, and I remember looking at [a coworker], and she was like, ‘I have to pee, can you come here?’ So I grabbed her headset, she went to the restroom. I had no idea what she had been doing. She was on the phone with a battalion chief from Henderson, and they were giving locations of 419s. I was shocked that I literally walked into that. He said, ‘I got two more.’ I said, ‘Two more what.’ ‘Two more bodies for you.’ I was so confused – reality [hadn’t] hit me [yet].

3. Know that protocol gets ditched — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Lofton’s center uses ProQA, which provides on-screen prompts and scripts, to assist dispatchers during their calls. Jordan Fox described taking a call from a 20-year-old festivalgoer whose friend had been shot. Fox stayed on the line with the sobbing young woman and tried to stick to the script at first. 

“After listening to her scream, and the screaming in the background, and how frantic she was, ProQA and the script went right out the window,” Fox said. 

4. Remember, other emergencies are happening, too

Tunnel vision happens fast in a crisis — it’s one way humans are able to focus on high-priority tasks. But in large event communications, it’s important to keep in mind that things are still happening outside of that event. Victims of home invasions, heart attacks, car accidents and other emergencies will need you on your toes to respond as efficiently as possible.

Bruno described the difficulty of switching gears from the Route 91 shooting to handling other calls. 

"Everything was starting to slow down a little bit [after] taking call after call after call, and then I got this call on a landline from this 82-year-old female from Sun City,” he said. “I didn’t pay any attention to the map and I said, ‘Where are you at?’ I didn’t even follow protocol. ‘Are you shot?’ She said, ‘Huh?’ I didn’t realize that we were still 911 operators, we’re still serving the entire Valley. I said, ‘Tell me what’s going on,’ and she said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I woke up with indigestion or chest pain.’ I’m like, ‘Why is she calling about chest pain at a shooting?’ And then I remembered you have to take a step back and realize you’re still doing your job.”

5. Leverage your team members’ strengths. 

Incident management is no time to learn your team’s strengths, Lofton said. Supervisors need to be aware of who excels at what in order to make the best use of everyone’s talents during a crisis. 

“Everyone has a strength,” she said. “Everyone has something to offer.”

Incident management details during the Route 91 shooting included notifying firefighters and ambulance companies; notifying chiefs to advise them of the situations their units were responding to; coordinating with stations towns over to fill in for the stations near the strip who were busy responding to the shooting. Dispatchers also had to notify hospitals to prepare for trauma patients, even though they may not have trauma centers; monitor TAC channels; update chiefs with information as it came in; figure out which hospitals had what space available and notify EMS accordingly. 

“That night I had to look at my team and I had to choose whose strengths were going to work for which detail,” Lofton said. 

6. Focus on the good

Guilt was another common thread among the dispatchers’ experiences, with many of them describing feeling as if they hadn’t done enough, or wished they had stayed longer, or hadn’t gone home. 

Focusing on what you did accomplish, instead of what you didn’t, can help mitigate these feelings.

“The [morning after the shooting] we had a debriefing and a lot of the team were saying they felt guilty, they were hurting,” Lofton said. “There were 22,000 people at that event and a lot of us felt like we were a part of that pain, like we didn’t save all those people. And I said, ‘But you guys, out of that 22,000, we still helped the other 15,000 or so. We did the best we could do.”

Learn more about APCO 2019 being held August 11-14, 2019, in Baltimore.

About the author

Lexi Wessling is a freelance writer completing criminal justice studies. She has worked as a writer and copy editor for more than seven years.

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