State Taps Firm That Handled Probe of Columbine Shootings

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and South Korean Ambassador Lee Tae Sik at an Annandale community meeting.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and South Korean Ambassador Lee Tae Sik at an Annandale community meeting. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

An Arlington County consulting firm that evaluated the emergency response to the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and other public safety crises has been hired by state officials to assist the panel that will investigate the Virginia Tech massacre.

TriData Corp. will provide staff and research support to the eight-member panel named last week by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Kaine, in Northern Virginia yesterday for a community meeting with the South Korean ambassador, met privately with Philip S. Schaenman, TriData's president. Schaenman said the contract terms are being worked out.

A division of defense contractor System Planning Corp., TriData is best known for studying fire safety issues. But it also conducted a study for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on police and emergency medical response to the shootings at Columbine, in which two students killed 15, including themselves, at the Colorado school. The report pointed out problems with communications and management of the disaster scene.

The firm was retained by Virginia officials to review the chaotic response to a false positive anthrax test at the Pentagon's remote mail facility and a similar alarm at Defense Department sites in Fairfax County in March 2005.

Again the firm concluded that poor communication and unclear chains of command hampered coordination between federal officials and local jurisdictions. Schaenman told a congressional committee that the response was "the homeland security version of the fog of war."

"There's always lessons learned," Schaenman, a former senior researcher at the Urban Institute and associate administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration, said in an interview yesterday. He said his team would begin by developing a detailed timeline of the incident at Virginia Tech.

"This is one of the most challenging ones we've ever faced," Schaenman said.

Campus and state police have been widely criticized for their decision not to lock down Virginia Tech after Seung Hui Cho killed two students at West Ambler Johnston Hall about 7:15 a.m. April 16. Some law enforcement experts have speculated that it might have contributed to the bloodshed two hours later at Norris Hall, where Cho killed 30 students and faculty members before turning a gun on himself.

Kaine and his appointee to head the investigative panel, former Virginia State Police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, said last week that the probe will cover all aspects of the catastrophe, from Cho's medical history to the decisions made by first responders.

Joining Kaine on a WTOP radio call-in show yesterday, Massengill mentioned Cho's possible involvement in telephoned bomb threats the Sunday before the slaughter and whether it might have provided an early warning.

"There are some questions as to what those bomb threats meant at the time and what they mean now," Massengill said. "There is some indication that the shooter may have been involved in the bomb threats." He did not elaborate.

Law enforcement sources said yesterday that a search of phone and e-mail records showed no immediate or obvious connection between Cho and his first victim, Emily Hilscher, who was killed at the dormitory before the rampage at Norris Hall.

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