Tuesday, February 2, 2010


You don’t send a policeman to put out a fire, and you don’t send a fireman to analyze a mass murder. But that is just what the state of Virginia did when it hired TriData to write Governor Kaine’s Review Panel Report of the shootings at Virginia Tech. TriData was apparently picked to write Governor Kaine’s Review Panel Report on Virginia Tech because the firm had done a report for the Department of Homeland Security on Columbine.

The problem is that the Columbine report is a completely different type of report than what was needed for Virginia Tech. The first two sentences on page one of the TriData Columbine report make that clear. “This report is an analysis of the fire service and emergency medical service (EMS) operations and the overall response to the assault on Columbine High School at Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Incident command, special operations, and mass casualty emergency medical services are featured.”

Indeed, if you google the head of TriData, Philip Schaenman, one of the entries is entitled: “Fireman, Philip Schaenman.” His background includes fire administration and he is “known to the fire community for leading studies and research on first responder issues,” according to the Web site for TriData, whose products include titles such as “Fire in the United States” and “International Concepts in Fire Protection.”

The Columbine report is a better report than TriData’s effort on Virginia Tech, probably because it deals with an area that TriData knows something about—emergency responses by fire and medical services. The report never really analyzes the warning signs or the actions of people in positions of authority to the crisis on April 20, 1999.

That said, there are sections of the Columbine report that do pertain to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Inexplicably, though, those sections are not sufficiently developed in the Tech report. For example, the Columbine report repeatedly refers to the importance of the Incident Command System (ICS) in responding to a crisis. While the report refers to ICS with reference to fire service personnel managing major incidents and crises, a major flaw at Virginia Tech was the poor management at the ICS-equivalent level. Given the emphasis on the role of the ICS in the Columbine report, I am puzzled why TriData did not put greater emphasis on that point in the Virginia Tech report. Major breakdowns on April 16, 2007, were mismanagement and the poor decision-making after the double homicide at West Ambler Johnston—and before 30 more people were killed at Norris Hall nearly two and one-half hours later.

TriData’s Columbine report also provides some good insights about four technologies that enhance crisis response (pages 37-39). They are: surveillance technology; interagency communications; detection, disablement, and containment of explosive devices; and intelligence. It is the last one, “intelligence,” that points to a major flaw at Virginia Tech; a flaw, which to my knowledge, has not been adequately addressed or corrected. Here again, I am puzzled as to why TriData’s Virginia Tech report did not go into the lack of “intelligence” more than it did.

Specifically, the Columbine report indicates: “When responding units first arrived on the scene at the Columbine assault, they had little definitive intelligence upon which to rely. … The lack of intelligence data was exacerbated by the length of time it took to disseminate incoming information to personnel in the field. Maintaining an effective method to communicate intelligence data (location of suspects, background data on the suspects, number of suspects, appearance, etc.) to operations personnel is essential during chaotic and intense situations such as the Columbine incident.”

Other universities, such as the State University System of New York, have addressed the intelligence problem by installing cameras, conducting drills, making sure plans of all buildings are up to date, briefing students on what to do in a crisis, and creating a security system with the ability to lock down practically all buildings on campus with four stokes on a keypad. Virginia Tech has improved some aspects of its campus security and emergency response plans, but a case could be made that much more should be done at Tech, including the ability to lock down buildings. It is curious that TriData doesn’t stress “an effective method to communicate intelligence” and draw more from the related issues in its own Columbine report.

Again, you have to ask, “Why did Virginia pay a ‘fireman’ nearly three quarters of million dollars to produce a report that should have been done by crime specialists?” The problem with the Virginia Tech report may, in fact not be so much TriData, but Governor Kaine and then-Attorney General McDonnell. They apparently did not fully check out options other than TriData. For example, a far better model for the state of Virginia to follow would have been the 174 page report produced at the behest of Colorado Governor Bill Owens.

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