There were two discussion panels held today by the Mass Casualty Commission, dealing with responses to critical incidents. The first one dealt with how best to prepare the police and other first responding stakeholders for a critical incident. The second session dealt with how to incorporate civilians, 911 operators and others into the response package.
Krista Smith, who is the ‘Legal Policy Officer’ for the Mass Casualty Commission, facilitated the morning discussion. There was an array of international experts on hand to give their views. They included Dr. Kimmo Himberg from the Police University College in Finland, Dr. Hunter Martaindale from Texas State University, Bjorn Iver Kruke from Norway, Kerry Murray-Bates from the Toronto Police Communications organization, Superintendent Wallace Gossen from the York Regional Police, and Cape Breton Regional Police Deputy Chief Stephen MacKinnon. Each of the individuals has had experience in critical incidents, and many of them also provide instruction to police officers and organizations on how to best respond to such incidents.
There was no discussion about the specific facts of the Nova Scotia RCMP response to the April 18 – 19, 2020 mass casualty events, but rather descriptions of more general guidelines as to how best to prepare for such unknown occurrences when they take place.
The amount of expertise provided seemed both overdone and a missed opportunity. In a regular civil or criminal trial, experts are used to analyze what actually happened and thereby use their expertise to discuss what could have been done better, or to pick up on things that non-experts might miss. Their expertise is established by their credentials, and in the course of their analysis they may reference research they have conducted or experiences they have had. Here, we learned of everyone’s expertise and the research they have done, but any connection to the mass casualty events, or even to Nova Scotia, could be make only by inference.
While it is impossible to predict every occurrence, or perhaps even very many of them, the advice from these experts is to do as much training as is possible, and to involve potential stakeholders from the community when doing so. For example, if there are any schools in the area or major industrial operations, police would want to develop a relationship with the leaders and those individuals within the institutions whose cooperation might be helpful during a critical incident.
Superintendent Gossen also teaches critical incident response at the Canadian Police College. He stressed that the most common problem with critical incident responses is not usually anything to do with specific tactics chosen by the first responding officers or the specific weaponry they have available, but rather confusion as to who is in charge. He said that even if two or three equally ranking officers are the ones responding, somebody needs to take or be assigned command of the situation.
Such comments certainly bring to mind some of what we have been hearing about the confusion in the overnight hours of April 18 and 19, 2020 regarding which commanding officer was in charge at what time. The comments from Superintendent Gossen were echoed somewhat by Dr. Himberg, who said that leadership must be clear, and also that it should be local to the event. He said that only when a situation escalates so as to be beyond the capacity of the first responding officers would command be transferred to a command center. In Finland, they have just a few command centers, and these are not intended to be mobilized or develop on-site where the incident is taking place, but rather in a static location.
Having an effective command centre was a theme throughout the day. There needs to be well trained people on the front end taking calls and helping citizens be effective first responders. All relevant information needs to be noted by the intake person, and then effectively transmitted to the commanding officer so that they can make use of whatever information is being provided in the course of formulating their response.
Communications with the first responding officers was discussed by Ms. Murray-Bates, who emphasized that information provided to the officers on the scene is critical, and must be handled thoughtfully and thoroughly. That point reinforced the importance of having an effective command centre.
She also discussed the role of regular citizens, and this was echoed by other panalists as well. Citizens are the real first responders, and the experts agreed that with guidance from the 911 operators and others, citizens can be very effective.
Tomorrow, there are two further panels dealing with critical incident responses. The first one will deal with making decisions under stress, and the second will cover the ‘societal context’.