It was not more than a few weeks after Newtown’s 12/14 tragedy that invitations began pouring in from across the region and the country to several key community leaders.
Many were from fraternal organizations in law enforcement and emergency communications looking to Police Chief Michael Kehoe and a number of 12/14 police responders, and Emergency Communications Director Maureen Will, for advice or guidance born of their experiences on that horrific day.
Others were from educational institutions and government organizations hoping to draw First Selectman Pat Llodra to share some of the unwanted wisdom she has gained from her journey since that sunny December morning turned dark nearly nine months ago.
Mrs Llodra has since issued a request to town officials to curtail or restrict future travel to speak about 12/14-related issues, unless the request involves sharing information that has not been previously covered Mrs Llodra said.
“It’s time for us to not be so present in those discussions,” she told The Bee. “It’s time to turn back to our business here.”
Prior to issuing the moratorium request, the first selectman chose to participate in about a half-dozen speaking engagements since mid-April. Her first was at neighboring Western Connecticut State University at a conference titled “Compassion and Creativity.”
The event was billed as “a creative exploration of how compassion is valued across the spectrum of communities.”
Mrs Llodra was part of a government panel with US Senator Richard Blumenthal and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton. Ten days later, she was at the Dart Center of the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City as part of panel discussing “Lessons Learned” at a conference called “Sandy Hook and Beyond: Breaking News, Trauma and Aftermath.”
She brought similar insights to a May 1 to Hartford’s Capitol Region Education Council. There, Mrs Llodra spoke on “Lessons in School Safety.” Her talk on May 29 at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania related to “Managing During Extreme Conditions.”
Her final speaking appearance was June 3 before the Northeastern Economic Developers Association in Norwalk. Attendees were invited to “hear three communities’ stories on how they are coming back stronger after their disaster.”
Mrs Llodra appeared alongside Matthew Doherty, mayor of storm-ravaged Belmar, N.J., and Don Poland, consultant to St Bernard Parish, La., which is still rebuilding eight years after Hurricane Katrina.
“Every invitation I accepted had a specific focus,” she said. “The Dart Center was about learning from others about media coverage of events like Sandy Hook — what went well and what didn’t.”
She said the school safety conferences involved sharing thoughts on how Mrs Llodra sees the future, and how her advice could help community leaders craft better public safety protocols for schools.
The one downside to the limited appearances the first selectman made was the spawning of many other requests to speak.
“Most of those I didn’t accept,” she said. “There had to be a legitimate interest or benefit to accrue to Newtown, like helping others by discussing our developing best practices related to school safety.”
In addition to these events, Mrs Llodra traveled several times to Washington, D.C., and to Hartford to meet and speak with legislators on topics including school safety, mental health, gun control, and related issues. The first selectman also appeared on various radio shows, and has been interviewed by state and national media.
All the local officials said that every engagement was an opportunity to help community officials, law enforcement peers, dispatch personnel, and fellow emergency responders develop better tactics and best practices in the eventuality a similar incident occurs on their watch.
“Relationship building was an important part of what we did,” Mrs Llodra said. “I know I met many people who were sincere about hearing what we went through so they could develop a set of best practices going forward.”
Calling On Police
A number of Newtown Police officers and command staff have appeared as featured speakers and panelists at events from San Francisco to Nashville, and from Florida to Maine.
Chief Kehoe accompanied Mrs Llodra to the Lafayette College event, where he spoke on a separate panel covering “Municipal Government Response.”
He has also been part of conferences and symposiums in Bridgeport along with Captain George Sinko, and accepted invitations to speak in Louisville, Ky.; Essex County, Mass.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Wilmington, N.C.; Tarrytown, N.Y.; and San Francisco.
At the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office event in Minnesota, Chief Kehoe co-presented alongside Officer Sam Lenda of Oak Creek, Wisc., who was discussing his response to the mass casualty shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek last August.
Chief Kehoe also testified before a Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee in Providence, May 1, encouraging the state to ban semiautomatic weapons, and has made several trips to attend or speak before lawmakers in Hartford and Washington, D.C.
“The requests to speak started a few weeks after [12/14], and it was tough decision determining how to recognize that we have so much valuable information to share and how to share it,” Chief Kehoe said. “Look at Columbine. That incident changed the way law enforcement training and school security is handled universally, especially on how we approach active shooter situations.”
Chief Kehoe admitted that his department “never trained for what we faced that day,” or for the “after incident management” that fell on his and other local departments to handle.
He also considered how much he and his officers have learned from others when they had something to share. And while all of the Newtown Police presentations attempted to help their colleagues, Chief Kehoe said none of them revealed proprietary investigation details.
“We would always ask who is the audience, and we would adjust our presentations depending on if we were addressing [school resource officers], emergency managers, or school personnel,” he added. “We always wanted the focus to be on communities looking to improve their best practices.”
In addition to Chief Kehoe’s engagements, Captain Joe Rios participated in an active shooter response panel in Las Vegas on March 19, while Sgt David Kullgren participated in a Crimes Against Children conference August 12 in Dallas.
Lieutenant Christopher Vanghele and Officer Jeff Silver appeared at another active shooter response seminar in Augusta, Maine, and two days later at a victim’s rights conference in Springfield, Mass. Lt Vanghele was also invited to speak at an active shooter response symposium in Midway, Fla., on July 9, and he is making his final appearance this week at a conference out of state.
According to coverage in The Portland Press Herald, Lt Vanghele and Officer Silver addressed hundreds of rapt emergency responders gathered April 23 at the Augusta Civic Center for the 5th Annual Maine Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference.
Winthrop High School Principal Keith Morin told The Press Herald that hearing Lt Vanghele talk about the events at Sandy Hook brought a human element to the event that a written report never could.
Officer Gladys Pisani was part of a law enforcement conference panel in Atlantic City June 25, while Lieutenant Richard Robinson and School Resource Officer Leonard Penna appeared at an active shooter workshop in Orlando July 14. Lt Robinson also spoke at a law enforcement conference a month earlier in Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Communications Are Key
When it comes to emergency communications, Maureen Will has likely been one of the most sought-after speakers. And she has obliged as many colleagues as possible, appearing exclusively at gatherings of state or regional Associations of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), or workshops organized by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
Between March 6 and this week, Ms Will has spoken on behalf of her relatively small staff at events in Georgia, Iowa, New Hampshire and Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Indiana.
She is also committed to appear at two conferences in Virginia, on October 24 and 29; in Minnesota on November 12, and will be wrapping up her work speaking to emergency communication colleagues in Texas November 20.
Unlike the first selectman and police chief, Ms Will uses the same presentation for each of her appearances, primarily because her audience is similar at every stop.
“Our goal is to, as best we can, better prepare managers, directors, and line staff in the event a 12/14 incident happens to them,” she said. Her talk covers subjects including incident command coordination, working with state resources, the municipal IT department, and a big focus on dealing with the media.
She also covers lessons learned and how these types of incidents affected her staff.
“It’s about how to be better prepared,” Ms Will said. “No one could ever be fully prepared for what we went through, but nobody should have to go through a similar situation unprepared.”
As she makes more connections across her professional peer group, Ms Will is discovering that Newtown is among a few communities that has an active shooter policy, and she finds herself sharing that policy with more and more emergency and police agencies.
Ms Will continues to be touched by how grateful people are that she is willing to travel to share her experiences.
“My presentation has no audio, no provocative pictures, it’s about what happened,” she added. “I want them to know what our small staff went through that day and in the days to follow. The unconditional love and respect I receive from peers is overwhelming.”
Most Expenses Covered By Hosts
In regard to travel to speaking engagements, Mrs Llodra spent a single night away from Newtown when she spoke in Pennsylvania, and she carpooled on that trip with Chief Kehoe. She had few, if any, other travel expenses beyond fuel in her town-owned vehicle.
Chief Kehoe said that regardless of the 12/14 connection, either he or members of his staff would have attended most or all of the conferences at which they were panelists.
But because he and his officers were police department emissaries, virtually all travel expenses, lodging and meals were covered by the conference hosts, saving thousands of dollars in the local department’s travel and training budget.
Most of Ms Will’s expenses were and will be similarly covered by the various state APCO and NENA chapters hosting her.
“These sessions are for telecommunicators, supervisors, and managers of 911 centers,” Ms Will said. “I fly in the day before the session and leave next day. Arraignments are made by the requesting agencies.”
Looking back at the many meetings and events he attended, Chief Kehoe notes that there is still something very important that is missing when it comes to communicating the experiences of communities facing tragedy and trauma.
“I said it early on when I appeared in Washington, D.C.,” the chief said. “I count on government agencies for a lot of things, but I could not find one book or manual on aftermath management. We have to write that book.”
For Mrs Llodra, it was as much about teaching and sharing, as it was about relationship building.
“We all need to better understand how to protect our students and communities,” she said.