The Newtown Shootings: A Risk Management Perspective

On December 14th at 9:30 am, after shooting and killing his own mother at home, a heavily armed resident of Newtown, Connecticut forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He killed twenty young children and six adults before committing suicide.

The global news media, of course, voraciously covered the tragedy itself, as well as the ensuing police investigation … and the funeral processions … and school security policies … and gun laws … and the violence that is embedded in American culture. All of these topics were debated relentlessly by commentators, pundits, politicians, and celebrities.

Interestingly, though, the press dedicated relatively little coverage to the government’s initial response to the immediate needs of the families of the victims. Was this response an appropriate one?

Delivering The News

At 3:00 pm on that fateful day, more than five hours after the shooting incident occurred, some of the parents of the slain children were still waiting in ignorance for news about their fate. Were their children taken to a hospital? To a morgue? Or were they still missing and unaccounted for?

The Connecticut authorities knew that the children had been taken to the local morgue, but no one had yet conveyed the heartbreaking news to all of the parents. So Governor Dan Malloy decided to speak to the families himself.

Some people have subsequently criticized the Governor for using “cold and callous” language while performing that emotionally wrenching task. Others have commended him for making the humane decision to assume the grievous responsibility of informing parents of the murders of their children.

Lost in this debate, though, is the fact that qualified human service professionals are specially trained to perform such tasks during times of crisis. Why weren’t such professionals already on the scene, communicating with the parents, by the time that Governor Malloy made his fateful decision at 3:00 pm that day?

CISM Teams

For more than fifteen years, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Red Cross have maintained a partnership “to deliver mental health services to the victims of disaster, rescue workers, military personnel and their families, and refugees.” Specifically, the partnership involves the maintenance of “a national network of … trained, licensed, or certified social workers to be mobilized in times of disaster.”

Although the network can be mobilized for “natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, (and) fires,” it is also explicitly available for “school shootings, bombings, and biochemical threats.” And the Red Cross has developed crisis-specific functions as well, such as Aviation Incident Response teams to address the unique circumstances of airplane crashes.

These Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams are available to work with people who are affected by natural catastrophes and other crises. Are mass shootings in public places now occurring at a level of frequency that would necessitate the development of specialized Firearms Incident Response Teams across the nation?

Enterprise Risk Management

The discipline of enterprise risk management identifies two primary considerations regarding prospective future crises. One is the anticipated frequency of such events; the other is the anticipated harm or damage that the events might wreak on society.

The general process of risk management is a simple one. If a potential crisis is a priority because it may frequently occur in the future, then society should strengthen the preventive control activities that may reduce its intolerably high frequency. Gun control laws might be strengthened, for instance, to reduce the future frequency of mass shootings.

However, if a prospective crisis is a priority because it may cause great harm or damage in the future, even though it may not occur frequently at all, then society should strengthen the crisis response activities that contain and minimize the harm. An Incident Response Team might represent one such response strategy.

Although any single mass shooting is indeed “one too many,” such incidents (thankfully) remain statistically rare events. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, for instance, has stated that he has “never seen anything” like the Newtown tragedy. A risk management analysis may thus conclude with a recommendation for the development of such Incidence Response Teams.

Prevention vs. Response

Many individuals are now focusing on new strategies for preventing school shootings in the future. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance, is introducing new gun control legislation to ban certain weapons from society. Conversely, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association is proposing to increase the prevalence of such weapons by stationing armed guards in every school building in the United States.

Thus, on the one hand, there appears to be widespread agreement about the desirability of enhancing prevention activities. And yet, on the other hand, there is little or no agreement about the specific activities that should be implemented to achieve this goal.

The strengthening of the crisis response function would admittedly do nothing to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies. Nevertheless, it may indeed ensure that victims and their families, as well as first responders and other citizens who are directly affected by such events, are treated in a more humane manner during times of crisis.