As time passes after a shooting, counties' roles change from crisis management to psychological support
Soon the news vans will leave Broward County, Fla. and life will go back to normal, before 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. The same way they did in January 2017 when five people were killed in a shooting at the county’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But when the eyes of the world focus elsewhere, a lot of work remains for county social service providers.
Though Broward County Public Schools will take the lead in delivering counseling and other services to students and faculty, the county will hire a consultant with mass casualty expertise to conduct an independent review investigating all aspects, before, during and after the shooting. A county task force will review and evaluate the after-action reports of all agencies and entities connected to the shooting, including the sheriff’s office, which received 45 calls for service to the shooter’s home over 10 years, according to records obtained by CNN.
“I think that we need to hire somebody to put together an impartial after-action report because I don’t think anyone that is commissioned by any of the agencies will be impartial,” said Commissioner Steve Geller. “After that, the creation of a task force will be appropriate and necessary.”
Commissioners also asked the Legislature for money to demolish and rebuild the classroom structure where the shootings took place and for a memorial.
As news of the school shooting took over the airwaves, it brought back a lot of traumatizing memories for people who have survived similar attacks in Oregon, California, Nevada and elsewhere. Clark County, Nev. saw more people file claims with the state’s Victims of Crime Administration (VOCA). The program reimburses medical, counseling and funeral bills and lost wages resulting from the Oct. 1 gunfire from a Las Vegas hotel room that killed 58 audience members and wounded 851 others at a country music festival. With a one-year filing period, Clark County has made outreach about the program its priority as its response transitioned to a long-term approach.
“Our biggest challenge is getting awareness out there and getting people to make claims, to get them on record,” said Assistant County Administrator Kevin Schiller. “We’re trying to reach people who don’t know this exists. Or, they may think they’re doing okay, but if the deadline passes and they haven’t registered, they won’t be eligible for assistance if something comes up later.”
Three weeks after the attack, the county opened the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, where victims of the shooting could come for help finding therapy or legal assistance for three years. The center houses therapists, caseworkers and VOCA representatives. It’s also the home base for a public awareness campaign to reach people who traveled to Las Vegas for the concert and likely live out of the range of the county’s VOCA public service announcements.
“We expected to focus more on behavioral health, but the demand for legal consultation is just as high,” said Kevin Schiller, assistant county administrator. “Lots of people are having trouble working, or they have medical bills and need assistance.”
When two San Bernardino County employees opened fire during a Department of Public Health training and holiday party in December 2015, killing 14 and seriously injuring 22, most of the treatment was provided through workers compensation, but the county knew those employees needed more.
“We had to create additional programming because the workers comp program is pretty cold and not full of a lot of compassion,” said county spokesman David Wert. “These folks were severely traumatized, so we went above and beyond the call of duty to try to make the system more humane and responsive.”
The county hired nurse case managers who help employees navigate the worker’s comp program. In addition, counselors are available to employees after other mass shootings.
San Bernardino came a few months after the largest mass shooting in Oregon history, when a student at Umpqua Community College killed a professor and eight students and injured eight others in October 2015.
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman was on the scene quickly and managed the county’s response throughout the process.
As time went on, he served as chairman of the county’s Community Healing and Resource Team, which facilitated the state’s delivery of mental health services and other resources to the affected students and residents. But beyond the immediate trauma to families and survivors, Freeman worried about the county as a whole as it faced unfamiliar scrutiny.
The shooting “had the potential to tear our community apart,” he said. “For as horrible as the situation was, our emergency response was flawless, but there were still questions and criticism about what could have been better.
“It’s human nature. We want to make sense of what happened. We want to know why it happened and have someone to blame — which government official, which parent, which friend was wrong. But sometimes it’s just the individual who did it.”
Freeman said he had been told first responders who handle an incident like the UCC shooting often leave their jobs within five years, and he said he certainly saw the potential for burnout when county staff went to work during the shooting.
“You have plenty of help for two days, and on the third day everyone is exhausted,” he said. “You have to send your folks home, but you also have to ask for help yourself,” noting that many county staffers assumed the commissioners had everything under control.
“I was treading water like you can’t imagine, but nobody knew it.”
After Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken came down to help out, Freeman was inspired to drive to Harney County two months later to lend a hand during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Like other counties, Freeman sees bad memories surface when tragedy strikes, but he also looks out for expressions of support. “Each one of these things brings backs the memories of what we dealt with. Each time you think about the work you did, the tremendous outpouring of care, support and love from our community, from our state, from our country, from around the world. It makes you realize that even though one person was evil, there’s so much good out there. There are so many people who are just really good people.”