Connecting state and local government leaders
The California county lost 13 employees in a terrorist attack in 2015. Earlier this year, officials released reports about how they responded to the challenges they faced.
As Virginia Beach hosts memorial services and grieves for the lives lost in Friday's mass shooting inside a city municipal building, employees also face the challenge of resuming city services after the killing of 11 public works and utilities employees.
It's a unique scenario that San Bernardino County officials encountered after 13 civil servants were killed in a 2015 terrorist attack, and one that prompted them to document both the challenges and lessons learned when a municipal government is the site of this kind of tragedy.
San Bernardino County published two reports on its experiences this year. One report offers a guidebook on preparedness, response strategies and recovery efforts for others to utilize in the wake of a mass casualty incident—a document county officials forwarded to their Virginia Beach counterparts this week. The other report documents the county’s own experiences and assessments of its response.
Twelve people, including 11 city employees and one contractor, were killed and four people injured in Friday’s shooting when a longtime city engineer opened fire inside a government building located on the city’s municipal campus. The engineer, DeWayne Craddock, submitted a brief two-sentence email resignation letter just hours before the deadly rampage, according to The Virginian-Pilot, which obtained a copy of the email.
In the days, weeks and even years ahead, Virginia Beach government officials will face a multitude of unexpected challenges as the city’s public works and public utilities departments cope with the shooting, said those involved in the San Bernardino’s recovery effort.
The California county’s Environmental Health Services (EHS) department lost 13 employees when a co-worker and his wife opened fire during a December holiday party. One other person who wasn’t a county worker also died, while another 22 people of the 72 people at the gathering were injured.
“What we found ourselves having to cope with right away was not only how to provide care and comfort to our traumatized county family members but how to carry on the very important functions that those people did in their jobs,” said David Wert, public information officer for San Bernardino County.
The EHS department conducts restaurant health inspections and officials found that not only did they need outside help to continue inspection responsibilities in the aftermath, but—because one of the attackers had also worked as a health inspector—restaurants wanted to get rid of certifications that had the gunman’s name and signature.
The employees killed in the Virginia Beach attack worked on construction projects, water quality and right of way issues.
City offices at the municipal center complex where Friday’s shooting occurred remained closed Monday. Offices were expected to reopen Tuesday, with the exception of those in the building that was the site of the shooting, according to a website Virginia Beach set up to communicate updates about the incident.
Other issues experts said Virginia Beach may have to address in the aftermath of the shootings include providing benefits to employees and helping them enroll in workers’ compensation programs, addressing facility security concerns, temporarily relocating city services from the municipal center, and deciding what to do with the building that was the site of the shooting.
Relocating a city office that requires public access might prove difficult, said Thomas Wieczorek, director of the International City/County Managers Association’s Center for Public Safety Management.
“We don’t in local government usually have a lot of buildings we can just move our functions to,” he said.
Though the gunman in Virginia Beach was a city employee with secure access to the facility, the shooting may also lead to discussions about restricting public access or adding additional security measures, Wieczorek said.
“He had the key to the front door basically and when someone has that it’s difficult to prevent,” Wieczorek said. “It’s a concern, how locked down do we make public buildings? It poses a question for local government that hasn’t come up as much.”
In San Bernardino, a government employee’s death was considered a termination of employment, which ended any medical insurance plans provided to victims’ families.
“You lost your loved one and were going to lose your benefits in two weeks. In San Bernardino that happened to be on Christmas Eve,” said Nick Lowe, president of Critical Preparedness and Response Solutions, a consulting group that helped write the San Bernardino reports.
To avoid cutting victims’ families off from health insurance in the aftermath of the tragedy, the county opted to make COBRA payments for them for up to three years afterward.
Another consideration for city officials dealing with a mass shooting will be the psychological impact on workers, Lowe said.
“From an emotional perspective, providing benefits and care for victims will be the most challenging,” he said.
In addition to providing counseling and other services to survivors of the shooting, first responders may also need assistance after working at such a horrific crime scene, Wieczorek said.
“They are seeing in Virginia Beach what you would see in a war zone,” he said.
Obtaining medical treatment and counseling has been a challenge for some San Bernardino shooting survivors who say bureaucracy has slowed or denied their access to treatment. One survivor, who suffered nerve damage and bone fractures in the shooting, had only been able to get prescription medications approved a month at a time, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016.
The San Bernardino report says that nearly all workers’ compensation claims were approved without delay in the first five months following the shooting, a practice that “may have established expectations for employees that were not sustainable in the long-term.” The county later rolled out a stricter process that required a review by a third-party medical expert.
“This added layer of review created frustration among many program recipients who wondered why processing was now taking longer and why previously approved treatments were now being questioned, and in some cases, denied,” the report states.
Then there’s the looming question of what to do with a building that has been the site of a mass shooting. In Newtown, Connecticut, residents voted to demolish and rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary, where 20 children and six staff members were gunned down in 2012.
“Will they even be able to use that building again? Will anyone want to work there again? Those are things you are going to have to deal with down the road,” said Wert, the San Bernardino public information officer.
While the San Bernardino shooting did not occur in a government office building, the county polled workers on their desire to return to the old office space and opted to totally renovate the EHS department.
“We completely remodeled because we didn’t want them coming back to an empty cubicle and thinking that is where my friend used to sit,” Wert said. The renovations took nearly a year to complete.
There’s also the cost.
San Bernardino County estimated its response and recovery efforts totaled $22.6 million. The largest costs were associated with the closure of county offices, payment for mutual aid and contract employees to staff the affected departments, and the real estate costs associated with temporary relocation and office renovation.
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to correct the spelling of Thomas Wieczorek.
Andrea Noble is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty.