September 11, 2011

Marinette school standoff communication was ‘large problem’

A COLLABORATIVE SERIES

The Center is exploring gaps in Wisconsin’s emergency preparedness to answer the question: A decade after 9/11, are we safer?

A joint project of Gannett Wisconsin Media and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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Back to Part Three:

Emergency response often uncoordinated in post-9/11 era The Center analyzed dozens of after-action reports and found communication breakdowns and other problems continue to plague the state. Sept. 11, 2011.

Report details overloaded cellphone network, other issues

MARINETTE — Emergency responders at a Marinette High School hostage standoff last year struggled with malfunctioning cellphones and other communication problems, according to a newly released report on the deadly incident.

At one point during the six-hour episode, Marinette County’s emergency management director had to drive several blocks to the scene because the cellphone network was overloaded and he could not reach anyone.

“It was a large problem,” emergency management director Eric Burmeister said.

The report, released in August by Marinette County officials, analyzes how police departments and other agencies handled the Nov. 29 incident in which 15-year-old Sam Hengel held a classroom of students and a teacher hostage at gunpoint for six hours before a SWAT team stormed the room and Hengel fatally shot himself in the head.

Known as an after-action report, the 20-page analysis was completed shortly after the incident by various agencies, including the Marinette Police Department, Marinette County Sheriff’s Department and Marinette School District.

The Madison-based Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism obtained a copy as part of its comprehensive look at Wisconsin’s efforts to boost emergency readiness in the 10 years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Other issues cited in the report:

  • Some telephones inside classrooms within the high school were not working.
  • A police command post established inside the school became “overwhelmed” and had to be moved outside.
  • Officials at a hospital bracing for mass casualties thought it did not get timely updates.
  • Off-duty police officers providing extra manpower arrived on the scene not knowing what was happening.
  • Police agencies could not find a common radio frequency to allow interagency communication.

Despite such issues, officials involved in preparing the analysis concluded that emergency agencies overcame minor problems and managed the crisis capably.

“It’s clear the organizations involved in this event are very good and professional in their approach to their job,” according to the report.

Marinette Police Chief Jeff Skorik said a 2009 mock disaster drill based on a school gunman scenario proved invaluable in preparing officials to deal with the Nov. 29 incident.

Skorik also said any future crisis will be managed better because of what officials learned during the hostage standoff.

“Every experience like that is a learning experience,” he said.

The report offers high praise for Marinette High School officials’ efforts in evacuating the school, alerting police and avoiding an atmosphere of panic.

Marinette School Board President Scott VandeHei said the district since has made minor adjustments — which he declined to detail for security reasons — but he agreed that school employees performed admirably.

“I do feel it was handled very well,” he said.

Contact Scott Cooper Williams at swilliams@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter: @pgscottwilliams.