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A Matter of Time

Local organizations can only prepare, train and wait until the next terror attack happens.

Most cities fear an act of terrorism, an act of terrorism, both foreign and domestic, but it only takes one event to turn that fear into reality. Orlando’s one event was the Pulse nightclub shooting where Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen who had once been on an FBI terrorist watch list, killed 49 people and wounded 58. Whether it’s a mass shooting, bomb threat or using a vehicle to strike pedestrians, these attacks could happen at any time, putting law enforcement and even civilians on alert.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security  ranked Orlando 38th in the nation for terrorism risk in urban areas, but only the top 33 cities on the list received FEMA grant allocations in 2017. Risk factors cited by FEMA include an urban area’s relative threat, vulnerability and targeted infrastructure that would be more likely to be attacked,   to name a few.

Considering Orlando’s place in the tourism industry, attracting more than 68 million visitors annually, and its residential population of over 2 million people in the metropolitan area, one would think it could earn some additional funding for training and equipment needed to handle emergencies like Pulse. For their part, local legislators  have presented a united, bipartisan front on the issue, imploring Congress to re-evaluate its formula for ranking the cities, and working together to increase funding to the grants for fiscal 2018.

In the meantime, law enforcement and other organizations must use their current resources to prepare for any variety of scenarios. It’s simply the new reality of the world we live in.

“[Our preparedness] goes back to the understanding that bad things are happening every   day in our communities. Just look at the news, morning and night,” says Eric R. Alberts, corporate manager, emergency  preparedness for Orlando Health, a network of community and specialty hospitals in Orlando, including Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC). Alberts is responsible for ensuring hospitals in the system are ready to respond to, recover and mitigate any kind of threat.

He says HICS (Hospital Incident Command System), a universal methodology for dealing with emergencies and disasters, guides their procedures, which include more than 30 emergency operation plans. For ORMC especially, exercises in these various scenarios made a difference in its response to Pulse. ORMC is the only Level 1 trauma center in Central Florida, and its proximity to Pulse contributed to the survival of many victims that night.

“One of the big things we  do is a full-scale community exercise once a year with all of the hospitals in the system and on March 10 of 2016—about three months before Pulse—our exercise involved 15 hospitals, 57 agencies and 500 volunteers,” says Alberts. “The scenario was a [person] going into a middle school and generating an active shooter with two waves of victims. Three months later the same staff members were living what they had prepared for.”

The night of Pulse, the first wave at ORMC had 38 patients in 42 minutes alone. “These training exercises do help because our staff goes into a sort of fight mode to handle it,” Alberts says.

Training kicked in for first responders in the Orlando Police Department (OPD) too. “Our officers have all undergone active shooter training and many of them have  said in the wake of Pulse that the training kicked in, almost like muscle memory, and that is what informed their actions that night,” says Michelle Guido, public information officer for OPD.

Guido says OPD cannot discuss specifics when it comes to training or tactical planning, but people can “be assured that OPD is constantly training and using the information from not just events that happen here, but in other places, to inform that training.”

After Action Reports (AAR) are conducted for just this reason, she says. “An AAR shares information  from these horrible events so that we can learn from each other and so that departments and national organizations, and even the DOJ, can come up with best practices,” Guido says. In the Pulse AAR released by the Police Foundation, Guido cites  a few examples:

“The decisions made and actions taken by the men and women of the Orlando Police Department and Orlando’s other law enforcement agencies embody the bravery, strength and professionalism of our nation’s law enforcement and public safety first responders as well as the strength of the Orlando community.

“The OPD and their law enforcement partners responded to the Pulse terrorist attack in a manner consistent with national best practices and under extremely  volatile and difficult circumstances, saving the lives of innocent people.”

The report also details some areas where the OPD could improve. “One tangible thing we did after Pulse was outfit every first responder in the agency with additional body armor that can stop high powered rifle rounds,” says Guido. “Many people don’t know this, but that armor is extremely heavy (30-40 pounds) and would be too cumbersome to wear in regular patrol operations. In the past, SWAT and some other special teams were outfitted with that level of protection, but patrol officers weren’t. Now, every first responder in the agency has extra body armor they can slip over their uniforms as well as Kevlar helmets for extra protection.”

Law enforcement officers are not the only ones working for the city of Orlando who need to train for situations like this. Manuel Soto, emergency manager, leads the Office of Emergency Management, and is responsible for coordinating the operations and response to disasters, both natural and man-made. Departments involved in regular training range from Parks and   Recreation to Business and Financial Services.

“Many people think it’s only law enforcement that has a role in some of these scenarios, but every department has a key role,” Soto says. “During an emergency we have to put every city resource at the disposal of those involved.”

Soto points to an exercise conducted in 2015 with a scenario involving a downed aircraft. “During the scenario we talked through the process of establishing a family reunification center, a place where loved ones with victims in the crash could go for support and information. It would be a link between victims and the families.”

This notion had never physically been followed through on until Pulse. “We originally established this family center north of Orlando Regional Medical Center but we realized the spacing requirements were   huge, and we eventually relocated to [Camping World Stadium],” Soto says. People from community relations, the legal office, mayor’s office, Red Cross, Salvation Army, the airport and mental  health providers—over 40 different agencies—were  brought in over 24 hours to provide services to the families and victims of Pulse.

“For those driving or flying into Orlando who didn’t know the area or where to go, this gave them one central location for information. We are really proud that we established and sustained it over a period of 12 days in support of the operation,” says Soto. “This also puts Orlando in a position on a regional level, since any victims of a mass casualty incident that occurs in nearby Kissimmee, Sanford or Altamonte Springs would be sent to ORMC. We have a process identified  even if it happens in another jurisdiction.”

Events like Pulse, or the shooting in Las Vegas, can also put entire industries in a heightened state of awareness. Visit Orlando highlights security on its website for potential visitors, citing the TouristOriented Policing Sectors, a unit with high visibility for  deterring crime in the tourism corridor. The major theme parks, which did not respond to comment for this article, have had walk-through or wand-style metal detectors in place for several years. Others in the hospitality industry use a combination of visible and more sophisticated technology for security measures.

Michael Vazquez, director of safety and security at The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, says security has always been among the top priorities for the company.

“A proactive approach our resort employs is crime  prevention through customer service,” Vazquez says. “Our emphasis on greeting and interacting with all guests also serves as a deterrent to  crime in that it removes the component of anonymity that some may seek when planning criminal activity. Some guests say they are greeted several times as they walk through the resort and this is intentional from both a security and a service perspective.”

Employees are also trained on spotting and reporting  suspicious activity via a priority hotline that prompts immediate attention. “The ‘See Something/Say Something’ message is reinforced through company  training, at new hire orientation and throughout the year. Visible prompts with this message are posted throughout the back of house areas,” says Vazquez.

He adds that all leaders in the resort have been provided “Active Shooter/Armed Attacker” training, and this is available to all company employees on an internal site.

After the Las Vegas shooting raised questions about hotel security, Vazquez says installing metal detectors on the property level has not been discussed specifically. “We have discussed and reacted to an expectation from our guests of heightened awareness,” Law enforcement at the scene of the Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 dead, Orlando’s most notorious experience  with terror to date. he says. “Appropriate levels of security in a hospitality setting needs to be such that they convey presence, deter anonymity and thwart attempts at perpetrating crime but they also must do so without detracting from the spirit of our business; providing a welcoming and open environment in which our guests  can make lasting memories.”

Reality no longer allows for American cities and towns to be unprepared. The question of “what if” exists no matter where you work, live, go to school—or where you choose to dance on a weekend.

“Since Pulse I’ve traveled around the country speaking to health care professionals and hospitals and it’s scary what we hear,” says Alberts. “Some don’t have a plan, some don’t practice it and some don’t do either. It’s scary for me to think that; there’s a lot at stake and bad things can happen at a moment’s notice. You don’t know where it’s going to be, and some of the health care providers in rural communities don’t have a lot of resources. It doesn’t even have to be a mass shooting they need to be ready  for. What if a vehicle plows into the gas station down the road? Do you have teams and training to respond appropriately?

“It’s only a matter of time before something else bad occurs and the way we confront this is to be informed and educated as humans to respond and be the best we can for our communities.”

Photo courtesy of Neville Elder / Shutterstock.com

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s March 2018 issue.