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OEM director says treat mass shootings like other disasters

Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps says prevention of mass shootings should be addressed the same as fires, floods and building collapses
Andrew Phelps

The director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management says Oregon isn’t doing enough to prevent mass shootings.

Mass shootings should be given the same emphasis — and emergency managers should use the same tools — as measures to stop other disasters such as fires, floods and construction mishaps, said Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management.

“We tragically lost nine Oregonians in our 2020 Labor Day wildfires, an event that led to sweeping changes to our laws and hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to protect Oregonians from similar wildfire disasters,” Phelps told the Mail Tribune May 26, two days after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers and injured 15 others at Robb Elementary School.

“Yet, when nine Oregonians lost their lives in the Umpqua Community College shooting in 2015, we saw no significant change,” said Phelps, who has led the state agency since January 2015.

“This is a lightning rod of a policy issue that’s caused so much divisiveness, while our collective inaction continues to cost lives,” he said. “From an emergency management standpoint, we must strip away any specific political agenda or ideology and take action to reduce our risk from mass shootings as we do with other hazards.”

Phelps said his job is to protect Oregon communities from all hazards and to reduce shared risk.

“A massacre like the Uvalde mass shooting is by every measure a disaster. So was Parkland, and Sandy Hook and Umpqua Community College right here in Oregon,” Phelps wrote on Twitter May 25. “Emergency managers need to lead policy discussions about reducing THIS risk, one that has taken more lives than wildfires or flash floods or earthquakes in this country over the past 25 years.”

Emergency managers provide advice to elected and government officials about how to mitigate risk from disasters and need to be comfortable doing the same thing when working to mitigate the risk of mass shootings, he said in an interview.

Many disasters aren’t “natural,” but are the result of choices and policy decisions, he said on Twitter.

Maximizing the safety of new construction projects, for example, includes recommendations that can be seen as controversial, such as land use and building codes about how and where to build, he added. Reducing risk often means “change this policy, adopt that code or amend these laws.”

With mass shootings, emphasis has been primarily on managing consequences and not on prevention. The Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999, in which 12 students and a teacher were killed and 20 others were injured, prompted conversations about infrastructure hardening on school campuses, Phelps said in an interview Monday.

Adding panic buttons and double locks have improved safety, but emergency managers must begin providing input about policy and legislation that could prevent these shootings, he said.

Because there are so many issues related to mass shootings, trying to prevent such crimes may require a patchwork of mitigation strategies.

For wildfires, flooding and construction safety, emergency managers rely on advice from experts in those areas. To prevent mass shootings, law enforcement, advocacy groups and other knowledgeable people could be consulted, Phelps said Monday.

“And we can look at what’s worked across the nation,” he added.

Phelps said Texas state legislators once went out of their way to quickly beef up school campus safety — and safety of other buildings — after a natural gas leak caused a massive explosion that killed about 300 people at a school in New London, Texas, in 1937.

The explosion was caused by an illegal gas connection that came about because the school board allowed the work to be done by people not properly certified to do it. Their decision resulted in tragedy.

Soon after the explosion, Texas state legislators held an emergency session and approved legislation that added the rotten egg smell to odorless natural gas so leaks could be detected. They also created rules to regulate engineering and prevent such poor construction work from occurring in the future and saved lives, he said Monday.

“They sprang into action,” Phelps said. “You have to wonder why we can’t do that for mass shootings.”

Reach reporter Terri Harber at tharber@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.