View from the frontline: the use of critical comms during mass shootings


With mass shootings continuing to be a massive issue in the US, Philip Mason talks to IHS Markit directing analyst - and frontline firefighter - Ken Rehbehn about the evolution of mission critical communications strategy in the light of this increasingly prevalent threat.

The beginning of this month marked the two-year anniversary of the most catastrophic shooting ever to take place in the United States, as carried out by mass murderer Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas.

For those who aren’t aware of the details of the crime, Paddock killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more, firing more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition from the window of his 32nd floor hotel room at concert goers attending a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip.

In an attempt to increase the carnage yet further meanwhile Paddock was also reported to have fired at a large jet fuel tank at the nearby McCarran International Airport, which thankfully failed to ignite. He was eventually found dead in his room, having at last put a bullet through his own head.

As appalling as the details of the Las Vegas mass shooting are, they have – with a mind-numbing inevitability – recently been rivalled by subsequent similar incidents, taking place in cities such as El Paso, Texas (22 dead) and Dayton, Ohio (9 dead). Looking at the statistics more broadly meanwhile, the United States currently registers around one such incident a day, albeit invariably on a much smaller scale.

As well as, obviously, being horrendous from the point of view of victims and witnesses, these types of incidents also place an immense amount of strain on the emergency services from an operational point of view. They are, after all, not just incredibly dangerous, but also wildly unpredictable in that the situation tends to be dependent on the whim of often quite extraordinarily unstable actors.

An integral part of this response is the use of mission critical communications, both in terms of providing situational awareness and keeping first responders safe.

Tourniquet techniques

One person who is uniquely placed to comment on this area of work in relation to comms is Ken Rehbehn, who is not only a directing analyst at IHS Markit, but also a frontline firefighter operating in the vicinity of Washington DC.

Speaking of how the increasing number of mass shooting incidents have affected US emergency services from a strategic point of view, he said: “It’s had a huge impact in terms of operations, absolutely, and it’s very much top-of-mind. For instance, every year we’re expected to take mandatory refresher training, and one of the disciplines covered now as a matter of course is mass casualty shooting situations.

“Organisations are providing dedicated simulation exercises for field personnel, in order to allow the command teams to simulate the environment and practice their response. These are complex situations which can change very rapidly.”

He continues: “In terms of operations on the ground, we’re now trained in how to use specific tourniquet techniques, which I believe were developed in Israel. We need to get emergency assistance to as many victims as possible, as quickly as possible, even if the situation is unsettled.

“There’s no question that this kind of incident can happen, and that it’s a real danger. We’ve already had some extremely serious situations in different places around our region, which the emergency services have had to respond to.”

Probably the most high-profile mass shooting in the Washington DC area took place in 2013, when Aaron Alexis killed 12 people and injured three more at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command inside the Washington Navy Yard. While Rehbehn hasn’t been involved in the response to anything on that scale involving a mass shooter, he has seen the strain which mass casualty incidents puts on operational response.

“Despite the statistics, mass shooting incidents are still a fairly rare occurrence,” he says. “The closest I’ve come to that kind of situation is the Metro collision we had in 2009, during which our unit was mobilised to provide backfill in areas of the city which had no fire protection due to crews being called away.

“While not quite the equivalent of what happened in Las Vegas in 2017, there are always parallel issues when it comes to any situation involving large groups of people with many dead [the 2009 train crash killed nine people and injured 80]. And there are always issues around management and interoperability when it comes to communications on the ground.”

Frontline communications

According to Rehbehn, there are two specific issues in the US when it comes to the use of radio communications on the ground during mass casualty incidents. The first is the provision and management of radio coverage and resources at locations which are likely to be swamped with first responders at short notice. The second meanwhile is the potential need for individual organisations – often summoned through mutual aid – to communicate with each other via potentially non-interoperable equipment.

Speaking of the second issue particular, he says: “The situation when it comes to technology in the US varies, because of the huge degree of control which exists in every locality. In the Washington DC area for instance, all of the jurisdictions are linked, and the radio devices – we use P [Project] 25 – can be programmed to operate on an adjacent jurisdiction’s system.

“In other parts of the country, it doesn’t necessarily work in the same way. A lot of the north east states for instance have very strong local control regimes, with systems governed by townships in some cases rather than large geographic authorities.”

He continues: “Having said that, individual organisations are now becoming increasingly equipped to work as part of these complex interagency activities. After 9/11 for instance, funding was provided to harmonise voice communications specifically using P25 technology. That grant money has enabled agencies to upgrade radio systems as their old ones become obsolete.

“This includes synchronising encryption techniques on the handsets themselves, as well as support for system-to-system connectivity, using solutions such as P25 ISSI [inter RF subsystem interface]. Referring back to the 2009 Metro crash, we successfully shifted from our jurisdiction’s radio system to that of the District of Columbia’s, literally as we were driving to the scene. We became – in effect – part of their fire response system.”

Moving on to the issue of resource management, Rehbehn suggests that this too tends to vary from one place to another, with the US lacking the (relatively) one size fits all equivalent of something like the UK’s Airwave tactical advisors.

“Organisations within the National Capital Region where we operate can call upon communications specialists from different agencies, who are certified through the Federal Department of Homeland Security,” he says.

“The incident commander can summon them for additional resources, and it’s something we also look at in the additional training I mentioned earlier. These personnel will be able to identify a problem, and then bring to bear resources in order to address it.”

He continues: “Thinking of the FEMA certification process specifically, that’s been used as part of incident command methodology, particularly in relation to disaster response, wildfires and so on. Again, more generally, the strategy will be different from city to city, and different again in rural locations because they don’t have the resources that the metropolitan areas have.”

Moving onto the subject of the use of broadband in this context, Rehbehn suggests that messaging functionality, resource tracking, as well as the ability to provide the command post with ‘visuals’ is already proving to be beneficial. This could be via the use of FirstNet, or competitors such as Verizon which is developing its own public safety broadband offer.

When asked why he believed so many mass shootings were currently taking place in the US, Rehbehn, probably quite wisely, chose not to give a definitive answer. Factors could include access to guns, “some tremendous challenges in our mental health system” or any number of others.

Whatever the motivation for these singularly appalling acts however, it’s clear that they have now become a residual problem in both American society and – as proved by the recent shootings Halle, Germany – elsewhere across the world. It is also clear that first responders need as much support as possible, technological or otherwise, in order to help deal with them.

Operational best practice and the use of comms will be a core theme at CCW 2020. Click here to register your interest in attending.  


Philip Mason
Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216