'Too many ambulances' overwhelmed Newtown responders

In the after-action report, having "more ambulances that needed and nobody was actually managing those functions" contributed to the on-scene chaos

Ken Dixon
Connecticut Post

HARTFORD, Conn. — Newtown Police dispatchers "were quickly overwhelmed" during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the immediate flood of parents and media made it even harder for first responders at the scene, Police Chief Michael K. Kehoe said Friday.

Kehoe, appearing before the governor's Sandy Hook Advisory Commission with Brookfield Police Chief Robin Montgomery, said that another problem in the early response to the school attack was the arrival of many ambulances from around the region.

"All the ambulances showed up, but they should have been managed better," Kehoe said, stressing that the active-shooter response "went well" because of training.

"But when it comes to incident command on a large scale like that, I would say that we, maybe, did not do as good as we could have," Kehoe said. "You had many more ambulances than needed and nobody was actually managing those functions, those ambulances."

Law enforcement officials were only some of the speakers to address the commission in a daylong session at the Legislative Office Building.

Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein told the group the charitable donations that flowed into Newtown following the December 2012 massacre created a kind of chaos as well, but not much outright fraud.

People from around the world donated more than $20 million, but there were few known charities prepared to handle the funds. New entities popped up to collect money for memorials, scholarships, victims' families and other causes. Rubenstein said that prompted his office and the state attorney general to issue public advisories, warning people to give responsibly.

Twenty first-graders and six adults in the school were murdered in a five-minute shooting rampage that ended with the suicide of Adam Lanza, 20, a former pupil there whose crimes are being reviewed to create a better statewide response mechanism.

Kehoe described the critical first hour of the response as "kind of chaotic" as police, fire and ambulances streamed into the town. "Our communications group became overwhelmed very quickly," he said, adding that only two people staffed the 911 call center that morning.

In all, there are 45 police officers in Newtown, with never more than three dispatchers on duty. "In this particular case, they were quickly overwhelmed; law enforcement was overwhelmed; fire services were overwhelmed; our EMS was overwhelmed," Kehoe said.

Montgomery, who was one of the on-scene commanders that day, said the initial response to the trauma of death and carnage in the school was inadequate for the entire town, from first responders to teachers, kids and parents.

"Quite frankly, I felt we didn't have a handle on it," he said. "There needs to be some entity that has oversight for the kinds of various trauma services needed by the folks in the community.

"So my pitch would be to look at somebody that's well-versed on the resources available in the particular region that could be called on in the event that there is another horrendous event that would be traumatic, to kind of have the same seat as the on-scene commander, but would be the person to have coordination of oversight of traumatic resources."

Kehoe and Montgomery, who was the Newtown chief's "shadow chief" that day, agreed that it would be advantageous to have established places for parents and family members to meet, farther away from a school incident. But they admitted that it would be hard to stop them from going directly to the scene.

Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, chairman of the commission, said the candid comments helped the commission.

"We all know that an after-action report is required and nothing ever goes perfectly," Jackson said. "Given the scope and scale of this, we know that everyone did not only their best, but better than their best. We know this in their hearts. But then to have them come back and say 'well, and here are a couple of things that you probably want to look at in terms of things that didn't go well,' that was a really powerful message."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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