Director of Emergency Management Michele Askenazi Recounts her Health Department’s Response to the Mass Shooting in Aurora, CO

By Ian Goldstein, Web Specialist, NACCHO

Michele Askenazi has served as Director of Emergency Management at the Tri-County Health Department in Greenwood Village, CO, for six years. Tri-County Health Department led the medical response after the mass shooting in an Aurora, CO, movie theater in July 2012. The following is part of an excerpt from a recent podcast.

NACCHO: At what point did Tri-County Health Department become engaged in the situation that unfolded at the movie theater and how did the department take the lead in the recovery and response effort?

Askenazi: It was multifold. Our agency director contacted us around 5:00 AM to let us know a situation was occurring and to see if we had been alerted yet. So of course we turned on the news and then we contacted others within our Emergency Preparedness and Response department. We received [another] call that morning also at 5:00 AM from University Hospital’s Incident Commander to let us know that they were going to have some needs as the incident unfolded, particularly addressing behavioral health issues. [The incident commander] put us on standby to let us know as soon as [the hospital] got the situation under control and that we should be prepared to meet those needs.

Both happened around 5:00 AM. With those notifications both from our internal agency director and from our hospital partners, we soon contacted our behavioral health partners. We then coordinated with our local emergency management partners in Aurora to see if they needed any support from us and to make them aware that, as [Emergency Support Function] ESF #8 lead, we were available to serve in that capacity if they became overwhelmed.

NACCHO: Please describe any training exercises with community partners or prior experiences that informed Tri-County Health Department’s preparations for responding to this type of disaster.

Askenazi: In any kind of exercise or real incident, we’re here to serve in that ESF #8 role; we’re here to meet the needs and challenges of our health and medical partners no matter what the response is. Whether it’s in a tornado scenario, a wild land fire, or a mass casualty incident, our response is generally the same: We use our operational ESF8 antics and implement that using the things that are helping serve and facilitate that response with our health and medical partners.

NACCHO: Let’s talk a little about all the people involved in this coordinated response. From the local health department leadership and the preparedness planners to the hospitals and mental health centers, how did this all come together?

Askenazi: All of this is predetermined by our ESF #8 operational antics. Internally, it was very important from the top up, from our agency director. He wanted to make sure that we were notifying our partners, both the local health department directors throughout the state, and also in providing situational awareness, both internally and externally. We happened to have a meeting at our agency with all of the local health department directors throughout the state, so we were able to brief them that morning to let them know what was going on.

It is also very important for us to make sure that we’re taking care of our own staff before they go into response situations, so we reminded them about secondary trauma— that going into this situation, we need to take care of ourselves too. So that was the first step.

For more about Tri-County Health Department’s response to the mass shooting in Aurora, CO, listen to the podcast.

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