Tucson air base lockdown: Communication failure

March 13, 2012 - 10:05 AM

PHOENIX (AP) — An initial report about a suspicious gunman at an Air Force base on the edge of Tucson led to a series of communication breakdowns, according to the military's review of the ensuing lockdown.

There were unconfirmed reports of gunfire at the base on Sept. 16 that prompted officials to limit traffic onto Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, lock down the base's schools and disrupt military flights. In the end, no shots were fired and no weapons or gunman were found after a search of a building where an armed person was reportedly spotted.

The Arizona Republic reports (http://bit.ly/yTFYHY ) a report released Monday said that an unauthorized suspect carrying a gun on a military base is referred to as an "active shooter," even if no weapon has been fired.

So when a civilian at the Tucson facility mistakenly reported seeing a man with an assault rifle, military responders began talking about an active shooter, and civilian emergency dispatchers off the base spread word that a man with a gun had opened fire.

Eventually, Davis-Monthan officials declared the emergency over and announced there was no gunman. They declined to explain the false alarm, but the report issued Monday offers a detailed explanation along with recommendations to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

The report said teams from the FBI, Tucson Police Department and Border Patrol responded "on their own authority," without being formally requested. For example, the FBI sent a SWAT team, snipers, bomb technicians, hostage negotiators and commanders. That led to further confusion about who was in charge because Davis-Monthan officials had never worked with the FBI, the report said.

Hours after the witness claimed to have seen a gunman enter a building, an observation team reported seeing a suspect on the structure's second floor, the report said. As a result, security officials believed an armed man held "an elevated position with a wide field of fire" and was potentially "part of a larger coordinated attack on the installation."

At the same time, some of the estimated 9,000 people in lockdown on the base began issuing Facebook and Twitter messages that incorrectly told of shootings and victims, according to the report. The witness and observation team were mistaken about a gunman, and their errors were compounded by emergency-response problems, Davis-Monthan officials said.

The report said the Defense Department had upgraded security efforts in 2009 after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas, killed 13 soldiers and left 32 wounded in a terrorist rampage.

The report recommended that Davis-Monthan personnel receive education on the use of emergency terminology. It also calls for training and increased communication with the FBI and other outside law-enforcement agencies.

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com