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Dispatchers kept calm through chaos of mass shooting (+video)

Emergency dispatchers on taking active shooter call

Harvey County Communications dispatcher Taylor Bush describes the priorities in taking an active shooter call. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)
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Harvey County Communications dispatcher Taylor Bush describes the priorities in taking an active shooter call. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)

Correction: The shooting at Excel Industries happened Feb. 25. An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date.

Rachel Corn decided it was time.

On Friday morning Corn finally listened to recordings of the emergency 911 calls she and her five colleagues responded to on Feb. 25 when Cedric Ford shot 17 people, killing three, before being shot and killed by police.

Corn has been involved in emergency dispatching in some form or another for 11 years, so she was as experienced as anyone besides the director to field calls that day.

She has taken suicide calls before, calls about horrible car accidents and calls about people being stabbed. She is used to coming home after work sometimes a little strung out.

When she came home that night, more than 15 hours after she left for work, she sat on the couch next to her fiance, a law enforcement man himself, who listened to her talk about the final five hours of work.

Corn couldn’t sleep. The adrenaline was pumping too much, she said, and in her mind she replayed the phone calls. A bullet to the head. Four dead. A woman who said she might have given guns to the shooter. Another woman kept calling over and over, sobbing in the background, asking if her husband was one of the ones who was dead.

Corn knew through a process of elimination that he probably was. But all she could do was calmly tell the woman that she would call her if she had any new information.

The next day she wanted a moment of space to think about something else. But when she turned on the radio, she heard more about the shooting. When she showed up at work at 8 a.m. the next day, with too little sleep, they talked about the shooting. That’s all people in town wanted to talk about, she said, and for days afterward everywhere she went, she heard more about the tragedy.

But on Friday, three weeks later, enough time had passed, and she finally was ready to listen to what had happened that day.

She clicked play.

911 calls from the mass shooting at Excel Industries Feb. 25, 2016 in Hesston. Cedric Ford killed three people and wounded 14 before he was shot and killed by responding law enforcement officers.

Making sense

Corn was in her office 20 feet away from the dispatchers, with the door open, when the first call came in.

She had been finishing paperwork from a health screening, and in five minutes she could pack up and leave for home. Corn has worked as a customer service representative since 2013 because the hours worked better for her family, but she helped out with calls on occasion.

It was very unusual to get a call about a driver shooting at other cars, so she stepped out of her office and listened. When a second call came in, she didn’t hesitate or say anything, she said. She just grabbed a headset and sat down at a monitor and took the call.

“This is Excel Industries, we have shots fired on campus,” a man told her.

“OK, where are those shots located at inside the building?” Corn responded.

“Plant Four.”

Corn asked what kind of a weapon the shooter had (“rapid fire”), how many shots had been fired (20) and if there were any victims.

“I cannot tell,” the man told her. “I just heard shots fired, people were running, about three people I saw, people are running.”

“Are you in a safe place?” she asked.

The man said he was under a desk with one other person, but the door could not be locked.

“Is there any way to block the door, put anything in front of the door so it does not open?” Corn asked. “A desk you can scoot in front of it, chairs, anything.”

“Possibly,” he said.

“OK, why don’t you do that, please. Try it since you have some people to help you, try to block that entrance,” she said.

And then she made the decision to hang up because she didn’t want to miss any other calls, she said. But before she did she made sure: “You don’t hear any other shots right now, is that correct?”

“Correct.”

The calls just kept coming.

Harvey County Communications dispatcher Taylor Bush describes the priorities in taking an active shooter call. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)

Do you know where the shooter is?

After the Columbine shooting in 1999, active shooter tactics changed, according to Dave Warner, a police consultant for International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. Instead of containing shooters and negotiating, the best practice is to get to the shooter as quickly as possible. Every second a shooter roams is potentially another life lost.

While it’s ideal to have four officers enter a building to take down an active shooter, Warner said, two will do, and you use one if necessary. That means the quality of information that the dispatchers send to law enforcement saves lives. If they can point out where the shooter is, and what kinds of weapons he has, the more quickly police can take him out.

None of the dispatchers had received special training about how to handle calls during an active shooting, they said. But Corn’s experience helped her remain calm while asking for information about who the shooter was, where he was heading and what weapons he had, she said.

That’s the most critical information, Capt. George Deuchar, a retired police veteran of 26 years, said in a training video he did for PowerPhone, a company that sells protocols for how dispatchers should respond.

One of the hallmarks of an active shooter situation is that there are rarely two that are the same, Deuchar said. It’s up to the dispatchers to piece together the puzzle pieces and relay the information to law enforcement.

This shooting was particularly confusing.

One of the first callers said that the shooter was a white man with blonde or brown hair. The shooter was black. The early reports made the dispatchers think that the shooter might still be in the Newton area, they said. But instead he was headed to his workplace – the most common target of active shooters, Deuchar said – several minutes away.

Call two

Molly Redinger, the assistant director, who had just gotten out of a meeting in the room next door, heard the first calls and sat down next to Corn, followed by the director himself, Don Gruver. They were fortunate, they said, that the shooting had happened as the first shift was ending, so they had twice as many people around than if it had happened 30 minutes later.

“I am in Plant One, we have people down,” a man told Corn on her second call.

“Where are you located?” Corn asked.

“I am in Plant One,” he said.

“Plant One,” Corn repeated, as all the dispatchers did with the key information they were told.

“And do you hear any other shots being fired right now?” Corn asked.

“He’s outside,” he said, talking over her. “The guy is outside and shooting.”

But Corn asked again, and the man said he couldn’t hear the shots anymore. The door was locked, he told her, but there were many other entrances.

In that moment, Corn had to make an instantaneous decision, about what to focus on. She knew it might be difficult to secure all the entrances, she said, and the shooter had already passed through that space, so maybe he had moved on, she thought. Corn turned her attention to helping the victims.

“OK, this is what I need you to do for me,” she said. “The ones that have gunshots to the shoulder, can you get some pressure on those?”

She gave the caller directions about how to open the airway of the man with a bullet in his head.

“He’s puking blood,” he told her.

“OK, I would like you to put one hand on his forehead, the other underneath his neck.”

“One on his forehead?” he asked.

“The other underneath his neck,” she repeated. “Lift his chin toward the sky. This is going to open his airway.”

Then Corn asked the caller if he could apply pressure to the wound.

“We can’t, we can’t,” he responded.

“OK, I do need to answer some other phone lines,” she said. “We have ambulances on the way, OK? Keep pressure on the other ones.”

Looking back

During the chaos of the shooting, one call they forgot to make was to the off-duty dispatchers, asking for extra help. But it didn’t matter. Once the seven other dispatchers in Harvey County heard about the shooting, most of them drove to work without being asked.

Last week all 13 dispatchers discussed what went well and what lessons could be shared with dispatchers across the state. Dispatchers from a neighboring county came in to field calls during their meeting, so that everyone could participate.

Emergency dispatchers with Harvey County Communications discuss how events unfolded during the shooting spree at Excel Industries Feb. 25. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)

That wasn’t the only generosity they were shown. They received food and cards from across the country, including from the dispatchers in Newtown, Conn., the site of one of the most violent mass shootings in recent years.

The positives of how they responded far outweighed the negatives, they were told at the start of the meeting. “The biggest thing that we did well is we all kept our cool,” said Brody Flavin, the evening shift supervisor, who in 11 years of work as a dispatcher said he’d never spoken on the phone to someone with a gunshot or stab wound before that night. “This is a situation where losing one’s mind would be completely justified, and we all kept our cool.”

Some dispatchers at the meeting talked about things that could have gone better, Corn said. Sometimes they were told they were being too hard on themselves, and other times the director told them, “OK, that’s good, we can build upon that,” Corn said. But they didn’t replay any of the calls at the meeting, and everyone supported each other, Corn said.

One of the lessons they took away, according to Redinger, was to have a board or screen in the room where they could keep really important information for everyone to access. Redinger also said they were looking into having active shooter training in the future.

Sinking in

Calls came in from workers in the building and people outside. Calls came in from officers on the scene and local media outlets. And soon calls flooded in from relatives wanting to know if family members were safe, and media outlets from across the country and even Canada.

In the moments of crisis, this meant that the dispatchers had to quickly find out if callers were in any danger or if they knew where the shooter was, and if the answer was no, they had to move on to another call.

About an hour and a half after the first call, the dispatchers finally thought to turn on the TV. They had been so consumed with their work, they hadn’t fully conceptualized just how huge this moment was. But seeing just how many officers and civilians were on the scene reenforced the significance.

Corn had taken calls from the New York Times and the Mexican consulate, which was offering help. But now, as the adrenaline wore off, Corn began to realize that the woman who kept calling who couldn’t find out whether her husband was dead was probably the wife of the man with a gunshot wound in his head, who she now knew was deceased.

Corn took a call from the shooter’s ex-girlfriend, Sarah Hopkins. Hopkins said that she had given Ford two guns, Corn said, and wanted to know if she and her two children were safe or if they should go into hiding. But Corn said she couldn’t tell Hopkins yes or no. “Just stay close to a phone so an officer can give you a call,” she said she told her.

At around 10:30 p.m. Corn finally got in her car and drove for 40 minutes back home to Wichita in the dark, with the radio off, in silence.

Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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