Sunday, 12 February 2023 06:30

Hoping to Prevent Repeat of Botched Response to Uvalde, Lawmaker Calls for Improved Training for Police, EMTs


This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief Weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

A Texas state senator announced a slate of bills this week that aim to better prepare schools and law enforcement for mass casualty events, including one that seeks to improve emergency medical response.

Flanked by several family members of victims of the Uvalde massacre and of the 2018 Santa Fe, Texas, shooting, Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat, on Tuesday called for more robust training to improve coordination among public safety agencies. The proposed measures include establishing a clearer chain of command and better preparing emergency medical responders so that they can minimize casualties.

The legislation comes two months after an investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Washington Post revealed that communication lapses among medical crews further delayed treatment for victims.

Nineteen children and two adults died in the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary.

Nearly 400 law enforcement officers responded to the shooting, but police did not confront the gunman for more than an hour. While experts said that law enforcement’s failure to do so was the most serious problem in getting victims care, the news organizations’ investigation revealed for the first time communication flaws and unclear lines of authority in the medical response that further hampered lifesaving efforts. An earlier story by ProPublica and the Tribune found failures to take charge at all levels of law enforcement.

Since the shooting, several local and state police officers who responded that day have been terminated or suspended. Others remain under investigation. Law enforcement leaders have defended most officers’ actions as reasonable under difficult circumstances.

Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, a nonprofit that helps coordinate trauma care in Southwest Texas during mass-casualty events, previously told the news organizations that medics encountered challenges, including a faulty radio system, and did the best they could in an “inherently confusing” situation.

Gutierrez said the problems in the Uvalde response require thoughtful and far-reaching action from the Legislature.

“Everybody in Texas needs to examine the complete and utter failure that happened on this day,” he said. “It must not ever happen again.”

As part of the investigation, ProPublica, the Tribune and the Post detailed medical responses for multiple victims who emerged from the school with a pulse but later died.

Gutierrez said those victims and others “might have lived” had the response been more in line with the average length of a mass shooting, which he said was about 12 to 14 minutes, compared to the 77 minutes children waited in Uvalde before the shooter was killed.

“We do not know how many of the other kids that didn’t have a pulse, at what time did they expire?” he said. “We do not know that.”

Gutierrez introduced other measures that sought $2 billion for school hardening, such as bulletproof glass and fencing at campuses, and another $2 billion to expand mental health care access. He said he wants about $750 million to fund 10,000 additional state police officers, who would be assigned specifically to school security efforts.

The state senator also pushed for legislation that would bolster rural communication tools. Emergency radios faltered on the day of the shooting, in part because Uvalde’s frequency was designed for rural terrain rather than inside buildings, according to Forrest Anderson, the county’s emergency management coordinator who oversaw its radio system’s implementation two decades ago.

Gutierrez called the fact that the radios did not work a “complete and utter failure.”

“Imagine that. 2022, and everybody in Texas should be very afraid. 2022, not one damn radio worked inside of that building. Not one radio. Cops were out there playing telephone for 77 minutes, trying to figure out what was going on inside and outside and who was talking on one side of the hallway and who was talking on the other.”

He took aim at Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security initiative, saying that if Texas is going to spend billions of dollars on Operation Lone Star, the state should also increase funding for improved emergency communications in border counties. Under the governor’s program, thousands of National Guard members and state police have deployed to the region.

“This story, yes, is a story about terror. It’s also a story about rural neglect, neglect in Texas,” Gutierrez said.

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to questions about Gutierrez’s proposals or his criticisms of the border security program. Neither did representatives for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick or the Department of Public Safety.

At the news conference, Christina Delgado, a Santa Fe mother who has become an advocate with the Community Justice Action Fund, a nonprofit focused on ending gun violence, said that in the coming weeks she and others impacted by gun violence would meet with lawmakers to discuss legislation related to mass shootings.

“We have got to take a stand. Now,” she said, pleading for lawmakers to listen and act. “This is coming up on five years of zero action, of showboating, of putting out legislation and allowing it to die just as we let our Texans and our children die in classrooms and in communities.”