06/13/2011 07:05 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

The First First Responders

The first shots fired at the Columbine killers came from a deputy sheriff already stationed at the school: school resource officer Neil Gardner. Gardner was not one of the hundreds of law enforcement officers who responded to the campus on April 20, 1999 from across the Denver metro area, but was already at the school. At 11:22 a.m. Gardner had just finished lunch in his patrol car while monitoring the "smoker's pit" at Clement Park adjacent the school. A panicked custodian radioed Gardner saying, "Neil, I need you in the back lot!"

Gardner figured the custodian meant the south student parking lot and headed over. He then got a dispatch that a student was down and flipped on his lights and siren. Gardner, wearing the yellow polo shirt of the school resource officer, arrived in the south lot at 11:24 a.m. Shooter Eric Harris fired about ten rifle shots at Gardner before his gun jammed. Harris missed each time.

Gardner fired four shots back. He missed too.

(A colleague of mine used to say that if Gardner had hit Harris, they would have renamed the school after him.)

First responders refers to the first officials on the scene of a crisis, and people usually associate that with police sent to a scene. But others may be on the front lines before the first responders arrive. And they may not always be law enforcement officers such as Gardner. They may be school principals, or teachers. They may however, have to communicate -- namely via radio -- with police officers.
That was the premise of a bill Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed Friday at Rock Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch. Rock Canyon is in Douglas County, with is adjacent to Jefferson County.

SB11-173, Interoperable Communications in Schools, is meant to promote communication between school staffers already on scene and first responders. "Currently many first responders across the state are unable to directly communicate with school personnel during an emergency because they are using different radio systems," according to a press release. "This can slow the flow of critical information needed to respond to a medical emergency, or lock down a school during the search for a dangerous suspect."

The bill is said to be "the first in the nation to envision statewide interoperability that includes all schools." The measure was co-sponsored by state Sen. Steve King (R-Mesa County), Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) and Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs).

Douglas County School District has already installed nearly $250,000 worth of interoperable communications with law enforcement in 15 middle and high schools, officials said. They expect to do over $1 million worth of work in the coming years.

Full disclosure: As the author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, I sat in on the first planning meeting for this bill. At that meeting the bill didn't evoke controversy so much as a riddle. Where would the money come from? Douglas County got a $247,500 U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security grant. And it looks like $1.1 million in new funding from the Douglas County Emergency Telephone Service Authority (E911 Authority). The next story will be how many more school districts are able to get the funding for such radio systems.