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Training was key for Sandy Hook communicator

Keep the victims at the top of your mind. That's the first thing that comes to Lt. Paul Vance when he recalls the most important lessons from communicating after a tragedy.

Vance, who recently retired from the Connecticut State Police, was the most prominent public information presence during the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, when a gunman fatally shot 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.

"You have to think about the victims at all times, every time you open your mouth to articulate to the people who want to know that they're safe, who want to know what occurred," Vance said.

He credits his training with helping him keep the local community and national and international audiences informed.

"People would ask me, 'How did you do that? How were you able to stand there and articulate the news, the information, knowing in your head what you saw and what you encountered?'" said Vance.

"My response usually is: 'It was hard, but it was something I had trained for.'"

Vance acknowledges that sometimes the training can seem too repetitive.

"Many times we throw our hands up and say, 'how many more times am I going to hear this?'" he said. "But in reality, it's like CPR. You go back and get recertified and recertified and recertified. When the bell hits, you've got to react. You don't have time to think. The training has to kick in, that's what helped me as a PIO for this tragic event."

A major-scale crisis requires a long list of entities — local, state, federal, fire, emergency management and others — to be at the table, said Vance. They should all cooperate to ensure a single, clear message.

"They all have contacts in the press, and what was important here was we needed to make sure our message was consistent, timely and accurate, and not self-serving for anyone," Vance said

Specifically, he said, that means no picking and choosing reporters to give information to and also making sure that "no one's response or anyone's involvement was more important than anyone else's. Sometimes people get wrapped up in what they did."

Responding to the mass-casualty event meant coordinating a host of different components, including a strategy to interact successfully with the media and one to provide personal follow-up to the community. In the case of the Sandy Hook massacre, this follow-up took the form of a trooper liaison program that paired a trooper with each victim's family for ongoing care.

There is at least one other ancillary component that all communicators should keep in mind — a public entity's staff.

"It's something that we all hopefully do in this day and age in public safety response, but we've got to make sure we include everyone and not just boots on the ground at the scene," said Vance. "There are many other people we need to be concerned about, call takers, maintenance people inside the facility."

In short, don't overlook the less visible staff members who were supporting responders from behind the scene.

"That is huge," Vance said.

Vance will present communications lessons learned from the Sandy Hook massacre at the August 29 training on crisis management for city PIOs and on August 30 at the Risk Management Services communication training for municipal officials. For more information contact Venyke Harley at vharley@masc.sc.