Communication Problems

    One of the technical limitations that surfaced during the Columbine shootings on April 20 was the difficulty for separate agencies to communicate directly with one another.  With 46 separate agencies responding, it was inevitable that they would be operating on different emergency radio channels, and in different parts of the radio spectrum or bandwidth.

    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 Ericsson 800 megahertz (MHz).  Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and Littleton Police Department used an analog 800 MHz system while Douglas County Sheriff’s Office uses a digital 800 MHz “trunked” format.

    With such varying systems being used, not only were agencies prevented from communicating directly with each other, but groups with similar functions also could not communicate via radio. Ideally, groups with the same responsibility, such as the various SWAT teams or those officers setting up inner or outer perimeters, would have their own channel to use in order to report and obtain vital information about their particular area.

    Additionally, if all agencies are using the same system, a central, or command, channel is established by the lead agency as the single point to which all agencies could report. At Columbine, so many agencies using a variety of radio channels and systems prevented the establishment of such a common command channel.

    The inability to establish a common channel for all responders to use during Columbine also has a positive side.  The use of a single radio channel would not have fixed all problems.  The number of radios in use during the incident would have created an immediate bottleneck if all agencies were attempting to use a single channel. Keeping communications separate between law enforcement, fire and emergency responders helped minimize the confusion and overload that would have occurred on one single channel.

    Without a common command channel, each agency had to communicate independently, or attempt to use one of the normal mutual aid channels such as ITAC (International Tactical Channel), CLEER (Colorado Law Enforcement Emergency Radio), NLEEC (National Law Enforcement Emergency Channel) or FERN (Fire Emergency Radio Network). 

    Each agency communicated predominantly with its own dispatch center.  Communications between agencies often had to be relayed through their dispatch center, or through an agency representative at the incident command post. 

    This emergency procedure to communicate vital information was established out of necessity and, although somewhat cumbersome, the approach worked.  The fact that numerous separate agencies did not have common radio channels did not hinder their ability to respond.