MEXICO — “The first half-hour of this incident was Armageddon — it was crazy,” Maureen Will told about 100 dispatchers, first responders, educators and school administrators on Saturday about the Sandy Hook tragedy.

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn. Before driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy, at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived at the school, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

“Law enforcement did not expect to see what they saw when they got in there,” said Will, the director of communications for Newtown, Conn.

“They went there to save lives, but there was nobody to save. It was just a horrendous, horrific scene.”

Will and Gary MacNamara, chief of police of Fairhaven, Conn., shared their experiences with Sandy Hook and other active-shooter situations for about six hours during the daylong conference.

The fourth annual Communications Training Conference was organized by the Oxford County Regional Communications Center in Paris and held at RSU 10’s Mountain Valley Middle School in Mexico.


The two keynote speakers hoped to teach participants how to better handle major incidents, urging them to think outside the box.

“It’s not ‘if’ it will happen — it’s ‘when,'” Will said.

“It’s just a matter of ‘when,'” MacNamara, a hostage negotiator, added. “It’s not unique to a community.”

Will emphasized the need for training; MacNamara imparted tactical advice and stressed preparation.

At times, both evoked tears in the audience with their stories.

Will, a retired police officer for 30 years, is a lifelong resident of Newtown. She was working in the small Newtown Emergency Communications Center with two other dispatchers on Dec. 14, 2012.


“The first call comes in at 9:35 in the morning,” she said of three 911 landline calls they received prior to being overwhelmed with more than 300 cell phone 911 calls while trying to organize a response.

The call was from one of the Sandy Hook Elementary School secretaries, a neighbor and family friend of Will’s and another dispatcher on duty. Later, they were told she was killed.

“You have probably heard the call because our 911 call tapes were released,” Will said. “Those 911 call tapes should have been buried. The secretary’s and the victims’ parents and the teachers and family members — they didn’t need to hear what we heard.

“I will tell you we heard gunshots,” she said. “I will tell you we heard screams, and the terror that was in the voices of the people who called us does not need to be replayed over and over again.”

So while one dispatcher was busy getting information from that call, a second call came in two minutes later. Will said it was a transfer from the state police from a teacher who was in the office who had been shot.

“So in this two-minute timespan, I’ve got two active calls going, both at the same time,” she said.


And one dispatcher, not realizing the other dispatcher was on the line with another 911 caller from the same incident, told her to get off the line.

“That’s what we as telecommunicators do,” she said. “If I’ve got a hot call going and I’m not sure what my partner is doing, (I would yell) ‘Get off the phone! We need help! This is a hot call!’ Because there is a protocol that’s got to get into place.”

Will said dispatchers need to be mindful of tunnel vision in that situation where multiple 911 callers from the same incident contact dispatchers.

The third call was from a custodian, reporting what was going on after he’d secured his wing.

Will told school officials in the audience that custodians are part of a school’s first line of defense, because they are part of the lockdown procedures and should be trained with law enforcement.

She said the other 300-plus cell phone calls went to the public-safety answering point, who answers off the highway, which is run by state police.


“Here’s a lesson learned — if you have to, please instill upon the staff, do not pick up the damn cellphones,” Will said. “Use a landline. It goes directly to the PSAP that’s assigned to your community. The cellphones bounce off towers. They were going all over the place.”

Will said they were not notified by the other agencies that got the 911 cellphone calls.

“No matter what happens, when something bad happens in your community and you’re in the forefront, you will always revert back to your training,” she said.

Their training said they would have radio communications coordination, which they did within three minutes and 10 seconds. One dispatcher handled all notification for law enforcement. The other dispatcher handled all EMS and fire response.

The trouble was, only one of three ambulances was available to help and firetrucks were soon blocked from leaving stations by cars of arriving parents and police.

Another problem occurred when fire and EMS responders ignored Will’s calls to stage away from the scene until it was secured.


Then she said they started getting calls from local law enforcement wanting to know what was happening and if they could help. MacNamara said he was 30 minutes away and drove 100 mph to reach the school within a few minutes to assist.

Mainstream media began to call.

“They’re calling and you can’t lie to them,” Will said. “Do not hang up on the media.”

She said they use a script which tells media that there has been an incident at a location, but they have no further information to provide. They say it twice and hang up.

Will stressed they never use the word “active shooter” in any dispatching calls over responders’ radios.

Forty-five minutes into the incident, Will said they realized it was very severe and they had multiple people injured and likely many dead based on what they were hearing in the calls.


She notified the school superintendent and a selectman, telling the audience to notify them first before they get barraged by the media.

Every school in town went into lockdown, and the Board of Education notified parents that there’d been an incident at a school. But nobody told Will.

She told school officials in the audience not to do that, because they were besieged by calls from parents, many of whom were in law enforcement. She said parents cannot call a 911 center.

By the time they finished telling parents to stay by their phones, “our hearts were breaking,” she said.

“They were crying but we can’t be,” she said. “We sounded cold. We sounded cruel, but we also sounded professional. The call volume was phenomenal. We were getting over 300 calls an hour.”

Additionally, parents, police, responders and media rushed to the scene, totally blocking roads. Police from across the state, tactical teams, the FBI and CIA, the governor and more all rushed to the scene, unbeknown to Will. Communities sent more than 200 ambulances.


“Did we not learn our lessons from Sept. 11? They all came,” she said. “This is what’s going to happen. No matter what you do, they’re coming. They’re going to hear it and they’re going to come.”

Will said the media got there quickly and brought hordes of helicopters trying to cover it from the sky, as tactical teams “in Army-men clothing” and assault rifles walked the streets.

Residents were traumatized.

She said some media members pretended to be family of victims and went to the houses of victims for interviews. Her own special needs daughter brandished a wall-hanging crucifix at reporters to keep them away from Will’s home.

Will also urged the audience to establish IT departments, which played an integral part at Sandy Hook.

“People are going to come from all over the country,” she said. “What are you going to do with them?”

Will then handed out Sandy Hook ducks like those given by law enforcement to children and adults affected by the tragedy.

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