The state commission that’s investigating the Parkland school shooting is recommending that law enforcement and school districts develop concrete strategies to better communicate with families of victims immediately following mass casualty events.
It’s also calling on Broward County to finally resolve deficiencies with its emergency communications system.
During a bi-monthly meeting in Orlando on Tuesday, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission discussed a string of recommendations that will be part of a second report it sends to state lawmakers to improve school safety. The commission submitted its first report in January.
The family reunification process after the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has received intense criticism after families waited for as long as 12 hours to learn whether their spouse or child died in the shooting. Some people found out information via text message or on social media before hearing from authorities.
Commission members suggested on Tuesday that school districts create formal reunification policies and work with law enforcement agencies to provide more updates to families following shootings.
“This was the worst day of our lives. And I think our families would have much rather known sooner than wait,” said Max Schachter, whose son Alex died in the shooting. “I hope that we can learn from this.”
Family members of the Parkland victims have described the reunification and death notification process after the shooting as torturous and chaotic. Relatives waited at a hotel near the school for hours without any updates about their loved ones’ fates.
The experience then grew more traumatic as homicide detectives began calling families into separate rooms one at a time to finally give them the news. Relatives, who had still not received confirmation and were outside the rooms, soon started hearing screaming and crying inside.
The Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission has concluded the reunification process was ineffective because neither Broward County Public Schools nor the Broward Sheriff’s Office had plans or policies in place for an orderly reunification.
The commission found there was no clear line of authority at the hotel, which left people confused about who was in command and making decisions about notifying families. And the school district failed to provide investigators with pictures of possible victims of the shooting, delaying the process of identifying victim remains.
“Nobody was prepared for this,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the safety commission. “Not only law enforcement, but the school district as well.”
The commission now wants school districts to develop specific practices to carry out an organized reunification process. Gualtieri suggested policies could involve providing families with text message updates about the status of the victim identification process after a massacre.
Victim advocates should also be assigned to families as they await a final notification, and schools could perform drills to practice the reunification process, the commission recommended.
Separately, the Stoneman Douglas commission continued discussions about Broward County’s 911 emergency communications system.
The network experienced delays during the shootings at Parkland and also Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017 in part because too many people were using it at once. Gualtieri said county school buses no longer operate on the network, which should reduce overuse.
But he’s not convinced all of the problems are resolved.
“If there’s another today mass response required, most likely it’s going to result in system overload, and the radio bonking and an inability to transmit,” Gualtieri said.
Broward has been in the process of updating its 911 system coverage by installing new towers across the county. But Broward and the city of Hollywood continue to disagree over the location of a final tower to complete the update.
The Broward commission still wants the tower placed in West Lake Park while Hollywood prefers it atop the Circ Hotel in downtown Hollywood. In September, the county commission decided to move forward with the update without installing a final tower in the city of Hollywood. Hollywood’s current radio coverage will remain the same as part of the plan.
Stoneman Douglas commissioners on Tuesday expressed concerns the radio system may not be as expansive and beneficial without the final tower.
Grady Judd, who is the Polk County sheriff and also a Stoneman Douglas commission member, called on both sides to end their disagreement. If not, the state Legislature should get involved and help settle the dispute, he said.
“The fact that we would leave an environment for police officers not to be able to communicate when they’re being shot at…. that people couldn’t get EMS and fire communications or police communications when they are the victim of signification emergencies, that is outrageous,” Judd said.