Departments Offer Support
Placed on Alert
1999, started promisingly in Jefferson County. Early that morning, community
leaders had gathered at the fairgrounds for the Good News Breakfast, which is
held each year in honor of good works being performed throughout the county.
At one table,
Jefferson County Administrator Ron Holliday talked to Sheriff John P. Stone
about their meeting scheduled in the afternoon to discuss emergency management
issues. Nearby sat two of the county commissioners, representatives from the
school district and other community leaders. The event gave them a chance to
celebrate positive happenings and programs in the county.
phone call placed just before noon dispelled the positive mood, however.
It was 11:53 a.m. when the phone rang in the commissioners’ office.
Sheriff Stone was calling for Patricia B. Holloway, then chairman of the
Board of County Commissioners. He was en route to Columbine High School, he told
her, where shots had reportedly been fired. Holloway promised whatever support
the county could offer and then informed Holliday, Commissioner Rick Sheehan and
County Attorney Frank Hutfless about the situation. They, in turn, placed all
county departments on alert.
As a former
county commissioner, Stone had seen the county respond to wildfires, floods and
other disasters. He was familiar with county capabilities, but no one knew what
this situation might require. As it turned out, the Columbine response drew on
more county resources than had any other disaster, and numerous departments
would be asked to provide support to the Sheriff's Office in the following days.
That initial alert set in motion a countywide response in which departments
worked individually and in conjunction with one another to meet a wide range of
Commissioners Request Emergency Funding
difficult to define the commissioners' role in responding to a massive crime.
The county sheriff is in charge of leading the law enforcement response, but the
commissioners can play an important support role.
In the case
of the Columbine shootings, the three-member Board of County Commissioners
released county resources as needed, helped represent the county to the
community, made policy decisions and procured emergency funding. Their role grew
as the days wore on, when the focus shifted from the initial response to helping
the community address its loss.
On April 20,
1999, two of the three commissioners were in town attending to normal county
business. Commissioner Michelle Lawrence was out of town, but she was quickly
contacted and informed of the crisis. Over the next five days, she received two
briefings a day and held regular conference calls with her colleagues.
alerting staff about the shootings, Holloway began making calls to cancel the
commissioners' meetings. She and Sheehan then hurried to the Sheriff’s
communications center to offer support and learn more about the situation.
thereafter, Sheehan drove to the school. Columbine High School is located in his
district, and he personally knew families who would be affected by the crisis.
the county staff at the sheriff’s communications center were asked to help
field media calls from around the world. Within minutes of the first 911
reports, news organizations began calling, and dispatchers needed others to take
media questions so they could concentrate on reports from the school and the
forming command post.
dignitaries and elected officials called to offer their condolences and
assistance. Mayor Watson of Austin, Texas, phoned Commissioner Holloway to
express his support and announce that his city had postponed the opening of its
new airport the next day. Mayor Giuliani of New York called her to offer the
assistance of its crisis team and emergency management staff. Then at 5:33 p.m.,
U.S. President Clinton phoned Holloway to relay his sympathy and pledge whatever
resources the county might need, including the help of a national team of crisis
counselors. Holloway fielded calls to the White House for the next two weeks on
a daily basis, sometimes as often as three times a day.
By the next
day after the shootings, the commissioners joined the county and Sheriff’s
Office staff at the Columbine Public Library, which had been selected as a media
command center because of its close proximity to the school. As chairman of the board, Holloway fielded many of the calls
from other elected officials. Meanwhile, Sheehan focused on a community-wide
planning effort to meet residents' overwhelming mental health needs. He also
accompanied the sheriff to local hospitals, where they visited injured students
and their families.
initial response ended, the commissioners began working with Gov. Bill Owens and
his staff to plan a memorial service for Sunday, April 25. As the county's
representative, Holloway spoke at the service and then joined Vice President Al
Gore in the procession to the memorial site.
The next day,
Lawrence returned and met the other commissioners at the media center. The
commissioners and county administrator worked with representatives from the
school district, District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and Jefferson
Center for Mental Health to draft a unified request for funding assistance.
Lawrence personally delivered the request to the Governor's Office, and, on May
4, the governor handed out checks totaling $1 million. Of those monies, $500,000
went to the school district, and $125,000 went to fund mental health services.
The remaining $375,000 went to Jefferson County to offset response costs.
Administrator Directs County Support Efforts
moments of hearing about the Columbine shootings, County Administrator Ron
Holliday gathered coordinators from the Public Information and Emergency
Management departments and headed to the sheriff's communications center.
next several hours, he answered media calls, helped sort through the growing
offers of assistance and mobilized key county departments. By midnight that
evening, Holliday had met with representatives of the primary responder
agencies—the Sheriff's Office, school district, and Jefferson County—to
decide how to handle the public information effort.
for the Sheriff's Office, Deputy Steve Davis, was holding hourly news
conferences for reporters on site, but hundreds more reporters were calling the
communications center. They wanted breaking news, maps, interviews and
background information about the county—and they wanted it right away. It was
clear that a phone bank and central media command center were needed to help
with the media response, but the communications center could not accommodate
such a large operation.
The planning group decided on Columbine Public
Library as an alternative site. Once that decision was made, Holliday placed a
call to Library Director William Knott and asked for use of the facility. Knott
promised not only the full support of the library and its board, but also the
personnel to assist at the library as needed.
pressing need at the library was to set up a bank of phones with one central
number for media calls. With the
help of John Zacrep, associate director of the library’s automated resources,
an initial emergency phone system was in place before any staff arrived early
In the next
several days, Holliday would make sure that all agencies working at the media
command center had the resources they needed. At the same time, he kept
communication flowing between those working on site and those serving back at
the government campus. He also answered media calls and worked with the elected
officials to coordinate efforts with state and federal agencies.
As the crisis
unfolded, more agencies and dignitaries arrived to offer assistance. Holliday
was instrumental in accommodating U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's visit and
planning the memorial service spearheaded by Gov. Bill Owens. When Vice
President Al Gore announced he would speak, Secret Service agents arrived to
plan security for the Vice President's visit. In preparing for these events,
Holliday worked with the various agencies to assign tasks, allocate resources
and address unexpected problems.
Management & Facilities Supply Necessities
county administrator headed to the sheriff's communications center, he brought
Judy Peratt with him. A 23-year veteran of emergency management, Peratt had
helped the county respond to numerous disasters, including the Buffalo Creek
fire and subsequent flood, winter storms and hazardous materials spills.
coordinator of the Emergency Management Department, and she was immediately
asked to help fill the needs of victims, media representatives and first
responders. Food was requested, as were portable toilets, water, shelter,
heaters and other necessities. The sheriff’s command post near the school also
needed buses to transport students who were being evacuated from the school. In
addition, street barricades and security personnel were later needed to keep a
curious public at a safe distance.
contacted the local Red Cross and Salvation Army offices first and asked them to
provide nourishment and water for those on scene. An officer from the Salvation
Army arrived by 12:30 p.m. on April 20 and immediately called in a mobile
kitchen, which set up near the command post. By 1:30 p.m., the Red Cross had
staffed its mass feeding vehicle and sent it to the command post and nearby
Clement Park, where media, students and families were collecting. Throughout
that first night, the Salvation Army fed 350 to 400 people from its canteen and
then served hot breakfast for 200 the next morning. The nonprofit also provided
blankets, dry socks and clothing for those on scene.
would stay on site as the response efforts continued. The Red Cross served more
than 12,000 meals by the time it demobilized on April 30. The Salvation Army
maintained its presence until May 1, by which point the group had served 15,000
meals and provided close to 300 blankets or pieces of clothing to victims and
As April 20
wore on, weather conditions worsened, and snow was in the forecast for the next
few days. Some kind of cover would be needed to provide shelter for the media
and emergency public information officers at Clement Park. The easiest source
for tents was the National Guard, but first the county had to make a request for
tents through the Colorado Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The director of
that office, Tommy Grier, made the formal request to the Colorado National Guard
on behalf of Jefferson County.
overwhelming surge of calls had jammed phone lines and left those on scene
scrambling for ways to communicate. In response, Arapahoe County sent 20
hand-held radios to the command post, and Peratt asked the amateur radio
association to be on standby to provide backup communication if needed. The Red
Cross sent radio communicators to the scene as well to help students contact
their parents. US West erected temporary towers, commonly known as COWS (Central
Office on Wheels) which expanded the capability for more phone lines.
Immediately recognizing the need for more capacity, US West erected the
first tower in Clement Park on Tuesday, April 20, to aid in the emergency
response communications. A second
COW was constructed the next day outside the library communication center.
Columbine incident, law enforcement officers discovered bombs around the
perimeter of the school and in the parking lots. The Sheriff's Office ordered
residents to evacuate the neighborhoods south of the school. Dispatchers
notified the residents, who were asked to go to a nearby shopping center, where
deputies and victim advocates greeted them. Peratt learned that local hotels
were offering rooms for evacuees as well as victims' relatives and friends
arriving from out of town. She passed that information along so those groups
would have warm, private accommodations for the night.
By April 21,
temperatures had plummeted, and Peratt called Jefferson County Facilities
Director Lee Suttie and asked him to find propane heaters to warm the tents that
had been erected at Clement Park. Suttie delivered heaters and also additional
tents for use outside Columbine Library. The tents were available in case
reporters stormed the media center looking for shelter from the weather.
Over the next
several days, Peratt fielded offers of help from individuals and agencies across
the country. One of those groups, the Colorado Restaurant Association, recruited
its membership to provide food for those working in the communications center at
Columbine Public Library. Albertson’s and other nearby food suppliers donated
goods as well, and Peratt coordinated the offers and ensured workers were fed.
his staff helped with that effort and also began preparing for the visit of U.S.
Attorney General Janet Reno. Suttie learned of Reno's visit at 10 a.m. on
Thursday, April 22. The attorney general was scheduled to visit the government
campus at 1:30 that afternoon, and the slushy spring weather was evolving into a
directly to the District Attorney's Office to discuss security for the visit.
The Golden Police Department was providing street and traffic control, while the
Sheriff's Office was handling interior and access security. The most important
step, however, was to empty the government campus of all employees and their
vehicles so law enforcement could secure the area. The county helped that effort
by calling a “snow day” and sending all non-essential employees home by
Over the next
few weeks, local agencies came together to meet the mental health needs of the
Columbine community. The Facilities Department joined in by helping to locate an
appropriate building for a Columbine resource and counseling center in south
Jefferson County. Suttie worked with representatives from United Way, the
Governor's Columbine Task Force, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Victim
Services Unit, the District Attorney's Victims/Witness Unit and the Jefferson
Center for Mental Health to secure a facility. They eventually selected the
Ascot Center, which is located on Bowles Avenue in south Jefferson County. Over
the next few months, the center evolved into a longer-term facility that
included a community meeting room, conference room, reception area, drug and
alcohol abuse treatment area, youth drop-in center and resource library. It also
has private counseling rooms and offices for administrative support.
Staff Fills Information Needs
Technical Services Division, which included the Network Services and Geographic
Information Systems (GIS) departments, was among the first to join the support
effort. In response to the shootings, the two departments equipped a media
command center and investigative center and produced more than 600 separate
aerial photographs and maps.
morning of April 21, the county administrator placed a call to Technical
Services Director John Loyd. Columbine
Public Library was being converted into a media command center, Holliday
reported, and televisions and other services were needed. Loyd drove to the
county administration building, picked up televisions and delivered them to the
library. The director and the Network Services staff then worked with US West to
set up another phone bank, which would be used in case a second emergency
sparked another media onslaught.
As April 21
wore on, Loyd noticed that the cell phones being used from the library weren't
working. The media and responding agencies had simply exhausted the cell phone
capacity in the area, and people at the library were unable to receive or place
calls. The problem was a serious one, because the media line alone could not
handle the call load. To help address the problem, Loyd contacted U.S. West and
asked them to install a temporary tower outside the library. The cell phone
capacity quadrupled once the task was complete, but it still couldn't meet the
arrived from AirTouch, which, through its emergency program, delivered 100
digital cell phones to the personnel at the school site as well as at the
communications center. According to an AirTouch spokesperson, the digital system
uses a narrower band and higher frequency than the analog system and thus
provides up to 10 times more capacity. The company loaned the digital phones for
as long as they were needed and charged nothing for the equipment or airtime.
technical staff also helped set up workstations at the public library for school
district employees and volunteers. Network Services coordinated the acquisition
of necessary technology, particularly Internet access for all workstations and a
T-1 link, which is a large capacity carrier that allows for multiple
point, Network Services was also busy setting up an investigative center at the
county administration building. By Friday, April 23, secured office space had
been set aside for the 80 investigators assigned to the Columbine Investigative
Task Force. Network Services equipped the area with 39 phone lines, 40 personal
computers, a special e-mail group, a group site on the county's network system
and network user IDs. Investigators also had their own printers, fax machines,
photocopiers and TV/VCR units.
the other department within the Information Technology Division—the Geographic
Information Services Department (GIS) —worked around the clock to meet the
staggering demand for maps and aerial photos of the school and the surrounding
area. The GIS Department is well known in the county as a source of accurate,
detailed maps, satellite imagery and high- and low-altitude aerial photographs.
initial hours of the crisis, the school district had given dispatchers a rough
floor plan of the school. By midnight, reporters wanted copies as well, and GIS
obtained plans of the upper and lower levels of the school and delivered copies
to Deputy Steve Davis for him to distribute to reporters.
more detailed maps and aerial shots flooded in the next day. Fortunately,
American Reprographics Inc. donated an aerial photo of the school and
surrounding area that had been taken just eight or nine days earlier. By then,
GIS had obtained detailed construction and remodeling plans of the school from
the district's facilities department. Taken together, the images gave reporters
and officers a detailed picture of the area.
its success in providing initial maps and floor plans, GIS was asked to serve as
a liaison between the school district and FBI. The FBI needed many precise,
detailed maps for the investigation and the construction of a three-dimensional
model of Columbine High School. The school district provided more than 800 pages
of maps and drawings, which the GIS staff used to collect data for the FBI.
After hours of study, GIS was able to report such details as the exterior and
interior wall elevations and building angles of Columbine High School. That
information was turned over to the FBI to create detailed diagrams and graphics
of the school and campus.
would help the FBI again by contacting local television stations to obtain raw
video footage of the unfolding crisis. Taken from news helicopters, the footage
allowed investigators to pinpoint the movement of law-enforcement, fire and
rescue and emergency medical personnel. Some of that footage was never aired
because its live broadcast could have endangered responders, but the images
provided valuable information for investigators.
April 22, GIS was helping yet another federal law enforcement group—the Secret
Service. Once Vice President Al Gore and his wife announced they would attend
the Sunday memorial service, the Secret Service called to request maps and
imagery of the area. GIS contracted with an agency to fly over the site and take
updated photos. Working with those images, the Secret Service was able to
estimate building heights, number of floors per building and high and low points
of the surrounding landscape. Color photo enlargements and line-of-site images
also gave them information about possible vantage points for snipers.
the following days, GIS was on constant call. To protect sensitive information,
the staff produced many images late at night when the administration center was
empty. All told, the department closed for only one hour between Tuesday
afternoon and Friday evening. By the time the investigation ended, GIS had
provided images for the Sheriff's Office, the school district, the media, the
Governor's Office, the Secret Service, the FBI, the Colorado State Patrol and
the Jefferson County administration. The staff produced more than 600 separate
images for the Columbine incident, which ranged in size from 11 x 17 inches to 4
x 6 feet.
Information Department Aids Massive Media Response
One of the
departments immediately called into action on April 20 was the county’s Public
Information Department, which supports the commissioners and all departments
under the county administrator.
of the shootings, Kathi Grider of the Public Information Department reported to
the Sheriff's communications center to help answer media calls. Over the next 24
hours, she helped establish the media command center, coordinated efforts with
other agencies and the elected officials and continued to answer media calls.
worked at the communications center, the rest of the Public Information staff
fielded calls at the office and then reported to Columbine Public Library the
next day. The staff supported the Sheriff's Office on site for the next two
weeks by answering calls on the media line, helping to plan the Sunday memorial
service, updating the county web site, responding to citizen inquiries and
supporting the elected officials.
The staff was
part of a 35-member team that handled the public information response to the
Columbine shootings. Public information officers from the county’s Open Space
Department, Health & Environment Department, the public library and the
school district stepped forward to help, as did public information officers from
state government and numerous fire, police and emergency medical organizations.
and Bridge Provides Resources
John Stone, having been Jefferson County commissioner for 12 years before his
election to Sheriff, knew the people and the county resources the would be
available to him for the Columbine response.
One of his calls on April 20 was for heavy road equipment available from
the Road and Bridge Department – a loader, a blade, and maybe a big dump
truck. The equipment might be needed to provide a protective screen for law
enforcement people assaulting the school or for the removal of debris later on.
Road and Bridge Department’s South Shop is located about six miles southwest
of the school, south of C-470 off Kipling Parkway.
Road and Bridge staff drove the blade, loader and truck to “no man’s
land” on Bowles Avenue, a safe distance north of the incident at the school
and of the media staging area in Clement Park. Although a front end loader from
a private construction firm was used to provide cover for Williams’ Jeffco
SWAT team as it moved to the west side of the school and made entry into the
cafeteria, the county’s equipment also was readily available if needed.
addition to heavy equipment, a request came for traffic control assistance on
April 20. Several county Road and Bridge employees delivered two lighted arrow
boards and set up the cones, barricades and boards at key locations to divert
traffic away from the high school site. They
also stayed to serve as flaggers.
As the days
wore on, Road and Bridge continued to assist by removing snow from the streets
and providing fuel for sheriff's vehicles. Equipped with pickups and 55-gallon
drums, employees delivered gasoline and diesel for patrol cars and a generator.
The supplies were delivered twice a day for three months until the investigation
at the site was completed.