By Megan O’Matz and Lisa J. Huriash Sun Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High children lay dying. Outside, the Coral Springs deputy fire chief repeatedly asked a Broward sheriff’s commander for permission to send his medics inside the school but was rebuffed.
“The incident commander advised me: ‘She would have to check,’” Deputy Chief Michael McNally wrote in a report released Thursday by the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department.
At the time, the shooter had not been caught, creating a dangerous situation for all but a handful of specially trained SWAT paramedics that already were inside.
But McNally kept asking for permission for additional medics, assigned to a Rescue Task Force, to go into rooms that had already been searched and found to be safe, to quickly extract and treat the wounded. Again he said he was told by the sheriff’s commander that she “would have to check before approving this request.”
Even after authorities saw delayed surveillance footage showing the shooter had fled the building, those Coral Springs fire-rescue forces were not permitted in. By the time the whole building was deemed safe for them to enter, there was no need — everyone had already been brought out by police or was dead.
Reports of paramedics being kept, for their safety, from entering the school are another in a long line of miscues and missed opportunities in the Valentine’s Day tragedy that left 17 dead. The FBI and the Broward Sheriff’s Office had warnings before the shooting that the gunman, a troubled 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, could shoot up a school but failed to intervene. An armed sheriff’s deputy based at the school took cover outside instead of storming the building to confront Cruz. And school officials and mental health counselors failed to hospitalize him for psychiatric treatment, despite serious concerns about his stability and his obsession with guns.
The latest records — some 80 pages — released by Coral Springs fire officials Thursday reveal more details of the chaotic response. One of the documents states the Broward Sheriff’s Office failed to set up an effective central command post, contributing to the confusion and frustration among the medics. The same issue was a problem in the January 2017 Fort Lauderdale airport killings — the last major shooting the Sheriff’s Office handled.
It’s clear from the reports that Coral Springs officials were butting heads with the sheriff’s office Parkland commander, Jan Jordan.
The reports released Thursday say Coral Springs’ Rescue Task Force medics were eager to get inside to help but were thwarted by Jordan. McNally said he asked six times for permission to enter “and my requests were denied.”
At one point, Jordan told McNally that specially trained SWAT medics were already inside the building’s danger zones but it’s unclear how many. An apparent argument ensued over the need for more medics, especially in safer areas that had already been searched and no bombs or gunman found.
Jordan could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
A sheriff’s spokeswoman told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Thursday that during an active-killer incident, medics are sent in after it has been confirmed that the threat is mitigated. She said more information will become available once all the facts are gathered in the criminal investigation and various state reviews of the response are completed.
Tony Pustizzi, the Coral Springs Police Chief at the time who has since retired, said Thursday that SWAT medics were in the building quickly but their purpose is to assist police officers in case one of them is shot. Naturally, if they see other victims they will treat them. He said SWAT medics from the Coral Springs Fire Department pulled at least two injured children out.
Paramedics had set up a staging area just outside the school at the corner of Pine Island and Holmberg roads. Victims were carried or driven there.
McNally, however, wanted more paramedics to go inside the school and was pressing Jordan for permission because she was in charge. He declined to comment Thursday, saying he’s not permitted to talk to the news media without department approval.
“What he said is true, it’s accurate,” Pustizzi said of McNally’s report. “He came to me and I tried to get a group to form up, but it was Broward County’s jurisdiction. We had to wait for an answer.”
The Coral Springs Fire Department put out a press release on Feb. 26 saying they could not speak for the sheriff’s office but believe that the Rescue Task Force paramedics were kept back because the Sheriff’s Office likely felt it wasn’t safe for them to go in, in accordance to how the response plan works.
“During the initial phases of this operation, we could not confirm that the suspect fled, had been detained or was confirmed deceased,” the press release states.
McNally’s report makes clear he felt the sheriff’s office had not set up a unified command structure, with leaders from each agency working side-by-side, including medics, the FBI and others, to coordinate the response and share information. McNally wrote that, as a result, “on several occasions, I would have to track down the incident commander to submit fire department requests.”
That concern seemed to be shared by an FBI agent on scene who, McNally wrote, also identified it as a problem. “The command post was inundated with too many people and made it impossible to establish and function under a unified command structure,” the report states.
In the aftermath of the January 2017 Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, the Sun Sentinel and the sheriff’s own reports identified the lack of a unified command post as a contributing factor to a disorganized response that left thousands of passengers stranded on the tarmac for hours over unfounded fears of a second shooter.
At Stoneman Douglas, McNally wrote, fire officials could not find out which structures had been cleared and searched. He also reported that his department learned of reports of more than 70 students in a drama classroom with unknown injuries. “I did not receive feedback when they were found,” he wrote.
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The reports also show that the safety precautions that kept many paramedics out of the building also restricted the ability to airlift the wounded to area hospitals. Broward County told Coral Springs that the county’s air rescue crews would not fly patients “until they could confirm the shooter was down,” the reports state.
Palm Beach County Trauma Hawk was called and the Coast Guard to send their helicopters.
Coral Springs fire officials “wanted to get the helicopter in but they were told no by BSO originally,” said Pustizzi, the former police chief.
Cruz, who eventually was captured alive, had a high-powered rifle. “He could take out a helicopter,” Pustizzi explained.
©2018 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)