(TNS) — Even before Sunday's mass shooting in Las Vegas, emergency management officials in Massachusetts and on the Cape and Islands were preparing for a similar tragedy here, including plans for how to get information to the families of the dead and injured.
"A lesson learned from the events in Orlando and other mass casualties, including San Bernardino and the Boston Marathon, is it's necessary that incident commanders set up a family assistance center," Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said during an interview with the Times last month after he spoke at a meeting of the Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee.
A formal state-operated family and survivor assistance plan is in the final stages of development, according to Schwartz.
Initial responsibility for meeting the needs of survivors and family members falls to local authorities where the incident occurs, but state-level assistance can be quickly activated if requested.
"We would bring in a command structure to set up an assistance center," Schwartz said.
The state would offer services that include coordinating reunification with loved ones or determining where they are located, counseling and moving family members to a private area to avoid grieving in public, he said.
Schwartz's agency is partnering with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, American Red Cross, Massachusetts State Police, and the state's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to develop the cooperative plan, which is expected to be finalized later this year.
If there's a major incident before then, Schwartz says his organization is ready to activate an assistance center.
"Even as the plan is being finalized, it could be implemented," he said. "After the Boston Marathon attack, we set one up with the city and other agencies in a matter of hours."
Local emergency management officials say the region is prepared if a situation similar to the Las Vegas massacre occurred on Cape Cod.
Emergency responders on the Cape participate regularly in mass casualty training exercises with active shooter situations, said Sean O'Brien, emergency preparedness coordinator for the regional emergency planning committee.
"We're prepared as we'll ever be, but you never know what the scenario is going to be," he said.
The scenario of shots being fired down on a crowd from a hotel room 32 stories above, as occurred in Las Vegas, would likely be difficult to immediately counter regardless of the amount of training and preparation, according to O'Brien.
"I think you'll see some major changes in security at hotels in Vegas," he said.
"This can happen anywhere you have an angry man and a gun," said Barnstable County Administrator John "Jack" Yunits Jr., a former mayor of Brockton who used to conduct annual major catastrophe simulation in the city after 9/11.
There are two SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams on Cape Cod with extensive training in active shooter and mass casualty incidents.
The Upper Cape Regional Response Team is composed of nearly 25 officers from the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office, and the Falmouth and Mashpee police departments and was deployed to Watertown in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
The team could be deployed and onsite at an active shooter or terrorist incident anywhere on the Cape within an hour, said Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings.
Members train monthly and recently conducted exercises aboard island-bound ferries and in empty school buildings. Local police departments typically have schematics and plans for every building in a town, including entertainment venues, which could be extremely helpful when emergencies strike, according to Cummings.
The Cape Cod Regional Law Enforcement Council has a highly-trained SWAT team that also conducts monthly exercises.
The team can be deployed quickly, but most active shooter situations could be over before they get there, underscoring the importance of all responders being trained, according to Harwich Police Chief David Guillemette, a control chief with the council.
"Most police officers have had training in active shooter response," he said. "We are prepared right down to the patrol level."
In the aftermath of a mass casualty situation, such as in Las Vegas where more than 500 were injured, a major deployment of emergency medical services and ambulances is also required.
There are only 72 ambulances on Cape Cod, according to Cummings.
The mutual aid requests would be coordinated from the sheriff's communications center.
"We would go as far as New Hampshire to get ambulances here," he said.
— Follow Geoff Spillane on Twitter: @GSpillaneCCT.
©2017 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
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