Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Firefighters’ training kicked in, helping curb shooting death toll

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Clark County Fire Fighter Joe Geeb speaks with members of the media during a press briefing at the Clark County Fire Department Training Center in Las Vegas, Nev. on October 5, 2017. The briefing was held to discuss the Fire and EMS responses involved in the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival this past Sunday.

Clark County Fire Dept Press Briefing

Clark County Fire Chief Greg Cassell speaks with members of the media during a press briefing at the Clark County Fire Department Training Center in Las Vegas, Nev. on October 5, 2017.  The briefing was held to discuss the Fire and EMS responses involved in the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival this past Sunday. Launch slideshow »

Still in Joe Geeb’s mind days after the shooting: concert attendees scattering from the festival grounds, the injured being loaded into pickup trucks, speeding cars with their doors open, and the smell of burning rubber as drivers desperately tried to flee. The screaming.

Geeb, a 14-year veteran with the Clark County Fire Department, was one of about 180 firefighters who responded late Sunday to the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Geeb and several other local first responders shared their stories Thursday morning at a Clark County Fire Department training facility, where Fire Chief Greg Cassell outlined the response of Southern Nevada agencies and how regular training for mass-casualty scenarios perhaps deterred a greater tragedy.

"Ten years ago, this would have been a much worse event,” Cassell said, noting a shakeup in training and emergency incident response policies about a decade ago in Southern Nevada.

The revisions included obtaining ballistic vests and helmets for first responders, deploying integrated teams of (well-equipped) police-fire-medics to volatile and active shooting scenes.

The agencies regularly train with private entities and have conducted drills at schools, malls, hotels and hospitals, Cassell said.

We’ve been somewhat planning on a major event in our valley for an awful, awful long time along these lines,” Cassell said. And although Sunday's shooting was unforeseen in the magnitude, the training worked.

Mass-casualty incidents — such as the ones in Colorado: Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and most recently the movie theater massacre in Aurora — were warnings to officials that it could happen here, especially it being an international tourist destination with soft-target venues, Cassell said.

“This is the world that we live in, unfortunately,” he said. “We’re a target, we know that.”

The response worked, and Sunday's incident may revolutionize the way agencies train across the country, Cassell said.

It's not to say there weren't challenges to Sunday's response, Cassell said. For a while there was uncertainty on what exactly was taking place, and there were at least 30 separate calls regarding the same event, but at different locations, including as far as Blue Diamond Road. "It was not one building. It was not one spot. It was not one address."

The first firefighters at the scene, who were driving nearby after responding to a car crash, were there within five seconds of the first shots fired, Cassell said. No on-duty firefighters suffered injuries.

Jeff Koceski, a 15-year veteran with the Clark County Fire Department, remembers first responding to the airport where there were "a ton of people" they've helped send to safety. His team then set up near the Hooters hotel and started responding to area hotels.

"Your head's on a swivel," he said. "You think ... how many shooters are there?"

Scenes stuck with him, just like they have in the past, "they'll be there," he said, and he and his colleagues will deal with them differently and as best as they can.

Geeb and his team responded from Clark County Fire Station 33. He remembers the mayhem, and his crew immediately set up a system to efficiently treat and transport victims. "This is not something that you hope for ever," he said. "It's just something that you just can't imagine."

When his crew got back to the station about 5 a.m., they still had about three hours left in their shift. There were still heart attacks, car fires, crashes. "The job doesn't end. That day was not over. Our shift was not complete, so we did all we did."

Getting home that morning was sobering, talking to his kids, ages 7 and 9, who were shaken was a relief. His wife listened while he talked.

Geeb says dealing with the incident will be made simpler by shared experiences of his crew and the outpouring of support from the community, which has become "such a shoulder for us to lean on. I don't think we could have ever imagined that, and it's really one reason why we do what we do."

And first responders will continue to serve the community, Geeb said. "We're still going to be there. That day was one day, and the next day we're back to work."

The attack will be "a scare on the Las Vegas Valley that we're going to work through and we're going to continuously get better," Geeb said.