Case Study on The Columbine High Massacre: an Analysis of the Disaster Response Team

Type of paper: Case study

Topic: Emergency management, Disaster

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2019/09/19

The Columbine High School experienced a horrific turn of events on the 20th of April 1999. Two of its students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were on a mission that led to the death of 12 students and one teacher. The two teenagers had been planning for this massacre for quite some time. They been collecting guns, ammunitions as well as bomb components that they would use on the day of 20th April. It is said that they had even created a website which they posted blogs with statements that pinpointed several individual likely to be their prime targets. (Cullen 2009)

The two teenagers had developed a deviant behavior with the feeling that the society was not giving them as is required. They thus developed criminal behaviors as a way of revenging to the society. This paper analysis how the response teams, that is, the SWAT, the police and the fir department carried on their duty to save the situation at Columbine High School on the 20th of April 1999.

The initial plan failed as the two 20 pound propane bombs failed to detonate. Harris and Klebold placed these bombs in the cafeteria. These bombs would have destroyed the whole of the cafeteria and made the library collapse. If these two bombs blew up, student in a lunch shift would flee and Harris and Klebold would be at the entrance, shooting at the fleeing students.  This did not happen and so there was a change of plan. They had to move in and start shooting.(Kass 2009)

The two teenagers entered through the western entrance, the highest point in the high school that provided a spectacular view for them. This led to a commotion once the two teenagers started shooting. One of the teachers heard the commotion and thought it was just but another high school teenage dirty joke. Patti Nielson observed that it was real and so she had the courage to dial 9-1-1. The shooting is likely to have started at around 11.19AM when one of the witnesses heard Harris yell, ’Go! Go!’.

The first one to arrive at 11.24 AM was Neil Gardner, Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy. As soon as he stepped out of his car, Eric Harris immediately started shooting at him. It is estimated that Eric Harris shot at least ten times. While Gardner shot four times, fortunately, Eric’s gun jammed and had to get to a secure place in the school to avoid being shot by Gardner.

Gardner got some back up at around 11.27AM. The team included Deputy Paul Magor and Deputy Paul Smoker. By at least 11.30am there were six deputies at the high school. The police kept the radio communication flowing requesting for emergency and medical assistance.  The police did their best in seeing that fleeing victims were shielded from the gunmen.  Hey did this with using a ring of patrol cars to hide the evacuated victims.

The medical team arrived next. The team of paramedics worked relentlessly. The paramedics went to save the injured victims despite the firing teenagers. They would eventually transport them to hospitals after an initial first aid. The sheriff’s deputies provided cover for the paramedics making the teenage shooters cease fire and retreat leaving the paramedics to collect the injured victims.

Enter the SWAT team. The SWAT team arrived at around 12.00 noon at least a whole hour since they had been radioed by the other emergency response team. The team of 20 led by Lieutenant Terry Manwarring, did not immediately enter the school rather, they stopped at Pierce and Leawood which is near the school. Only 12 SWAT team members moved into the school and near the buildings.(A Columbine Site)

There was a radio call request for an armored truck to rescue injured victims as it was not safe for the paramedics who were not armored in any way. Another SWAT team led by Sergeant Barry Williams arrived at 12.30 PM. The team had 10 SWAT officers. It is reported that the SWAT teams did not enter the building until nearly 1.00 pm. This is ironic, as there were no gunshots or bomb explosions heard for the last one hour.

It was like they would have to wait till all the shooting was done. It was argued that there were differences between officials who were not able to get the exact number of shooters. All they knew was that there were shooters firing on school children. This is argued to be a contributing factor to the inaction by the SWAT team.

There several successes and failures by the response teams at the Columbine high massacre. The sheriff’s office at Littleton, Colorado responded promptly. If we literally calculated the response of the call from the time the call was made that would be; less than four minutes. (A Columbine Site)

If Harris and Klebold started shooting at 11.19 am, and the teacher, Patti Nielson made the 9-1-1 call probably a minute or so after the shooting started, the sheriff’s deputy arrived at 11.24 am around five minutes since the shooting started. Neil Gardner, a sheriff’s deputy was quick to react when Eric started shooting at him. Neil Gardner is able to call for back up as well as medical emergency rescuers. He was able to coordinate and communicate with the relevant authorities.

The time that the sheriff’s officers take to call for help is short and does entail the burden of complex formalities. The officers were able to shield the fleeing victims from the gunmen. They are also applauded for shielding the paramedics who rescued the injured students and staff.

On the other hand, the police tactic of handling the situation was not appropriate. This was a scenario of a shooting but not hostage keeping. At the Columbine High School, they used an old tactic of surrounding the building, setting up a perimeter and containing the damage. This tactic would not have worked especially in this scenario where the gunmen were not demanding ransom or any sort of favor but were more interested in killing the students. The police would have moved into the building using their specially trained personnel. This would have reduced the number of those killed as well as those injured. The goal of moving in is to stop the shooters at whatever cost from committing more harm by either killing or injuring. The police should have utilized its trained personnel for this purpose.

The SWAT team was another relevant player in the Columbine High Massacre. Their presence though, did not make much impact as expected. Their actions were slow and irrelevant to the not-to-be compromised task ahead of them. To start with, the SWAT team arrived late, in fact more than an hour since they had been radioed by the sheriff’s officers. This shows there slow response to a call of emergency. Regarding the magnitude of this case, where helpless students and staff members with no weapons and nowhere to run for help.

The SWAT had to even stop some at distance away from the school. It was like they were not concerned with the essence of time in this scenario. Once they were at the scene of crime, the SWAT team did not do anything to stop the shootings. We can argue that the SWAT is a highly trained crew in gun handling and a member has the ability to shoot one down at a long range. The issue that may undermine their response to crimes like this one is the chain of command. If the commander does not give the command, the officers cannot march forward. ( A Columbine Site)

This is true because, the officers were able to enter the building only after 1.00pm. In fact, the gun shots and bomb explosions had gone silent some time before. The only staff member who died during the incidence, Coach Sanders bled to death. It is said that it would have been possible to save him if only SWAT team had come earlier. The coach had been shot at around 11.30am, but it took SWAT three hours later to rescue him only to find him dead. (A Columbine Site)

The paramedics did a commendable job. It took them only a few minutes to respond to the call of the sheriff’s officers. The paramedics were organized as they had all their equipment ready for the tasks ahead of them. The paramedics worked relentlessly at the scene of crime. Despite the unsafe conditions of the school compound they still collected the injured students and quickly transported them to health facilities nearby.

The paramedics were able to work with the sheriff’s officers in a coordinated manner, where the officers would cover them and at the shooters to divert them from shooting at the paramedics. The paramedic would therefore be able to collect the injured students and staff members. We cannot blame the paramedics for the death of coach Sanders. It would not have been possible for them to access the coach from where he was lying. This is because; the SWAT team itself had not entered the building early enough. The SWAT would have provided cover for the paramedics to collect any student injured inside the building.

There seem to be some disrupt in the communication flow between the SWAT and the paramedics. This case can be explained with the scenario when the SWAT officers found coach Sanders bleeding to death. The students had designed a gurney that they would have used to get him down to the exit. They instead requested the students to leave because the paramedics would get him and take him to hospital. This took around twenty to thirty minutes to realize that no paramedic was coming and so they had to lower him themselves. Coincidentally, a paramedic came through the western entrance only to feel his pulse and pronounce him dead.

The Columbine High School massacre is said to be the forth most dangerous school shooting in American history. It is the most dangerous of a high school shooting. University of Texas is the first followed by Virginia Tech Massacre and the third is Bath School.

Emergency management is the discipline that is concerned with avoiding and dealing with risks. This discipline is thus concerned with disaster mitigation which deals with trying to avoid disasters happening or trying to contain them once they happen. The other component of emergency management is disaster preparedness. The emergency management team must be involved in planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising and evaluating and improvement to sharpen their skills. This enhances their capability to effectively coordinate and also prevent and protect against disasters, responding to disasters and recovering or rescuing victims from disasters. Effective disaster preparedness keeps the emergency management put in case of any disaster. ( Cunny 1983)

The third component of emergency management is response. Response deals with how an emergency management risk deploys the necessary emergency services depending on the nature of the disaster. This is a critical stage of emergency management. The capability of a team to effectively respond to a disaster may be determined by much the team had been prepared. This means that disaster preparedness is very important in terms of training and exercising. The team must also be well equipped for a disaster.

The forth component of emergency management is recovery. The recovery phase is concerned with trying to restore the affected area. In this case, various decisions must be made to help mitigate for any future disasters just like the one that had just happened. After a disaster has occurred, it offers an opportunity to apply some mitigative measures that may help in preventing future disaster.(Cunny 1983)

The four components of emergency management represent an important cycle of emergency management. Every component is very vital in emergency management. The Columbine High School massacre was a man made disaster. If mitigation policies had been properly addressed at the Columbine High School, the massacre would not have happened at all. This can be explained in the subsequent manner. Reports indicated that Harris and Klebold were into suspicious behaviors.

The two created a website in which they posted ways of creating mischief and the mischief they had organized. They started posting blogs which were initially jokes but turned out to be threats especially to Brooks Brown. The mother to Brooks Brown had even filed numerous complaints against Harris believing him to be dangerous. No exploit was taken. But Brooks Brown’s parents were persistent and gave the address to the police. Investigator Guerra drafted an affidavit for a search warrant of the Harris household which was never filed. The two had earlier been arrested of theft of tools and equipments and had been sentenced to juvenile diversion.

According to a survey by the United States Secret Service, most of the school shootings occurred and the circumstances the shootings occurred. According to a report released from the survey in May 2002, it was discussed that several people new that the incidence would happen. Most of the shooters did not threaten their targets directly. Brooks was threatened but was not killed anyway.

The report also suggested that the attackers engaged in behaviors that were suspicious. They would act in deviant behaviors. These behaviors will cause alarm to those close to them. It is also possible that the attackers were not able to handle or cope with certain significant losses or failures. It was clear that some had even tried to commit suicide out of these. Most of the shooters in the school shootings felt persecuted or bullied by others in the school. Most of these shooters had access to guns and had used them earlier. From these recommendations the schools had to introduce policies such as the anti-bullying policy. There was zero tolerance on any threatening behavior. Measures of school security were put into place. The students were expected to use digitalized identification cards.(Safe Schools Report)

In terms of response, the police used the old the old tactic of surrounding the building, setting up a perimeter and containing the damage. The police had to train on the Immediate Action Rapid Deployment. This involves four specially trained officers advancing to the shooter. This tactic is used especially when the attacker is targeting to kill but not take hostage. The speed in which SWAT acted was not fruitful. The SWAT arrived late and would therefore not do much. It was recommended that they train for the columbine-like situations.

It reported that in the Virginia Tech Institute massacre, the IRAD tactic was used. This tactic is said to have saved dozens from either being killed or getting injured. This tactic therefore proved reliable.

There is community emergence response team in the US. This is of the federal programs that are promoted under the citizen corps and funded by the Stafford Act. This can also be an organization of volunteers with emergency management skills. These volunteers are trained and therefore skilled to perform tasks in disaster response. These groups work with the relevant emergency authorities.(Citizen Corps)

Emergency authorities sponsor CERT within their area. The authority is charged with training the CERT members on emergency management skills. The authority may employ a full time liaison officer for a CERT. once a CERT has become large, it may split so as to have more people join and get skills on emergency management.

The CERT initiative is a very important program. This program has made it possible for the people to acquire certain basic skills that may be necessary in case of a disaster. Through the funds, some CERTs have been able to acquire tools and equipment which they can use in case of a disaster. This makes it convenient as the CERT members are from the neighborhood.


A Columbine Site retrieved from on 18th October 2010

Citizen Corps retrieved from. on 18th October 2010

Cullen, Dave. (2009). Columbine. Grand Central Publishing, 2009

Cuny, F. (1983). Disasters and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Safe Schools Report. Retrieved from on 18th October 2010

Kass, J. ( 2009). Columbine: A True Crime Story. Ghost Road Press