County Departments Offer Support


County Placed on Alert

    April 20, 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.

    A single 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 needs.

County Commissioners Request Emergency Funding

    It is 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.

    After 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.

    Shortly 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.

    Holliday and 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.

    In addition, 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.

    As the 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. 

County Administrator Directs County Support Efforts

    Within 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.

    During the 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.

    The spokesman 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.

    The most 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 Wednesday morning.

    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.  

Emergency Management & Facilities Supply Necessities

    When the 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.

    Peratt is 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.

    Peratt 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.

    Both groups 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 responders. 

    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.

    Meanwhile, an 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.

    During the 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.

    Suttie and 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 full-blown snowstorm.

    Suttie went 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 noon.

    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.   

Technical Staff Fills Information Needs

    The county's 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.

    Early the 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 demand.

    Help soon 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.

    The county's 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 communication lines.

    By that 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.  

    Meanwhile, 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.

    In the 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.

    Requests for 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.

    Because of 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.

    Later, GIS 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.

    By Thursday, 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.

    Throughout 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.

Public 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.

    Upon hearing 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.

    While Grider 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.

Road and Bridge Provides Resources

    Sheriff 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.

    The 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. 

    In 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.