August 2, 2016

Responding to a Mass Shooting

Information flies fast: It’s a daunting task to keep it accurate, timely

The billboard off the interstate near Roseburg, Oregon, boldly proclaimed: “I am UCC” next to a graphic of a Riverhawk, the college mascot. For a jarring moment, I wondered: How was that billboard put up so quickly? I was driving into Roseburg to help, just hours after the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1, 2015.

Then, I remembered. The billboard was part of UCC’s student recruitment campaign. It had been there for months. But at that moment, I felt the slogan spoke directly to me. Others who saw the billboard experienced the same connection. All of us that day were UCC.

Decades ago, I started my career at UCC in community relations. The rural campus, tucked in a bend of the scenic North Umpqua River, seemed an unlikely place for such violence. But it had happened, and I was grateful that I could assist.

That morning, a gunman had opened fire in a classroom. Nine were killed; eight others were injured. The victims included the class professor, age 67, and eight students ranging in age from 18 to 59. After a brief shoot-out with local police, the shooter, a student enrolled in the class, shot and killed himself.

By the next morning, I was working in the community command center and helping my client, The Ford Family Foundation, which is also in Roseburg. One of the foundation’s scholarship recipients was among the fatalities.

Law enforcement has its own elaborate structure for responding to such events. Our work focused on coordinating the college and the community response.

Crisis communication is soul-draining work. By its definition, something terrible has happened, and chaos often follows. Managing information flow is just one part of a community’s command-center responsibilities. We also worked to meet mental-health needs, restore the building where the shooting occurred, organize fund raisers for the victims, and manage a visit from President Obama. Experts from across the country flew in to help. We learned more than we ever wanted to know about responding to tragedy.

Every group involved in the response had overwhelming communication needs. Plans were being made quickly — from evacuating the campus to finding locations for counseling. The information flew, and it was daunting to keep it accurate. No one public information officer could have handled the load.

Accept Help

That was one of our first lessons. An army of communication professionals from across the state cycled through the command center. Like me, they wanted to help. They wrote press releases, drafted question-and-answer sheets, and prepared press-briefing notes for officials. Other lessons:

Accept Expert Help

A team from the University of Oregon’s Emergency Management & Continuity Department came at the invitation of Rita Cavin, UCC’s interim president. They quickly implemented a command-and-control infrastructure known as the Incident Command System, an on-scene structure developed by the U.S. Forest Service to deal with wildfires and now used for disasters of all kinds. The system helped us do strategic planning on a tight timeline.

Build Resilient and Redundant Websites

UCC’s website, the place where most people looked to get information, became overloaded and crashed as the incident became an international story. The problem was made worse as the passwords to access the site were kept in Synder Hall, the scene of the shooting.

Beware the National Media Circus

The national media descended en masse, filling hotels and clogging roads around the college, the hospital and sites of the funerals. They were relentless in their pursuit of stories. A male reporter followed Vanessa Becker, chair of the UCC board of trustees, into a restroom trying to get an interview.

A community member reported that her neighbors set up lawn chairs across both ends of the street on which a victim’s family lived. The family had no desire to talk to anyone. Neighbors took turns sitting in the chairs to create a human barricade and to protect the family from the onslaught of reporters.

The national media finally left after the last funeral.

Embrace the Local Media

Despite the free-for-all with the national media, the local media behaved, for the most part, responsibly. They helped us disseminate critical information — where to find counseling, how to donate funds, and where to give blood. They, too, pursued the unfolding story, but they are part of the community and in for the long haul.

Use All Communication Channels

Press briefings are just the start. Post to websites, Facebook, Twitter, and any other means of sharing information. And monitor social media. Facebook helped families and authorities identify possible victims. The Ford Family Foundation sent texts to all of its scholarship recipients attending UCC. We accounted for all of them except one — Lucas Eibel, an 18-year-old chemistry major, who lost his life in that classroom.

Some Will Try to Politicize the Event

While the overwhelming majority of the community focused on ways to help the victims, a few grabbed the spotlight to highlight their agendas. The media were quick to give them a microphone. Gun-rights protestors (for and against), many from out of town, used the moment to promote their views. Others led demonstrations against President Obama, who came to offer condolences to the victims’ families. The media did not differentiate between locals and outsiders, nor did they check credentials for people who held out their opinions as representative of elected officials. The result was a misrepresentation of the community, which was difficult to correct.

Take Care of Your Basic Needs

Like food and sleep. Make sure someone is charged with keeping healthy food and drinks available at the command centers. And don’t worry about things you cannot control. The work in the command center needs your full attention.

Cycle Out

The atmosphere is intense and exhausting. Understand your limits and hand over to others when your effectiveness wanes. Take care of emotional needs; responders are not immune from the trauma.


It’s been almost a year since the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Each time a mass tragedy happens in the United States or beyond, those of us who responded feel a shiver. We know the horror. We know the affected community is scrambling to respond. With funding from The Ford Family Foundation, my team created a 32-page publication that captures lessons learned by many who responded to the Roseburg tragedy. This article is based in part on material from that publication. The full issue is available online at www.tfff.org/cv-ucc. Multiple printed copies are available for free; email nharrison@tfff.org.

I wish that there were no need for such a publication; unfortunately, wishing will not make it so.

Nora Vitz Harrison
Nora Vitz Harrison has worked in communications for more than 25 years. She is a consultant to businesses and organizations including The Ford Family Foundation. She lives in Portland, Oregon. www.three60com.com
Interest Categories: Digital Communications
Tags: crisis communication