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Las Vegas fire official says stalled bill would have helped responders during mass shooting

The "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign is surrounded by flowers and items, left after the October 1 mass shooting, in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 9, 2017.
The "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign is surrounded by flowers and items, left after the October 1 mass shooting, in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus/File Photo

CARSON CITY, Nev. – A Las Vegas-area fire chief who warned lawmakers months before a 2017 mass shooting at a music festival that Nevada should bolster its emergency management planning says he wants to bypass state lawmakers to get changes made.

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Six months before the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting on the Las Vegas Strip that killed 58 and left hundreds injured, Clark County Fire Department Chief Greg Cassell testified before state legislators in favour of a bill that would have required more co-ordination of emergency medical resources ahead of such a large event.

Investigators say gunman Stephen Paddock acted alone when he fired from a high-rise suite in the Mandalay Bay casino-resort into the crowd of 22,000 at the Route 91 Harvest festival. The FBI concluded Paddock sought notoriety in the attack but said it found no “single or clear motivating factor” to explain why he opened fire on the concert.

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Cassell said Friday that had the legislation passed, the fire department would likely have had a fire incident command on the scene before the shooting.

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Having a fire incident commander at the event could have improved communication and made for a more effective response plan, Cassell said. Months before the event, he told lawmakers the effort would avoid delays in ordering and directing emergency help.

The legislation he supported in 2017 passed the Assembly unanimously but failed to make it out of the Senate. It’s unclear why the bill failed to pass, and Cassell said he never received a clear answer on why the bill did not cross the finish line. Generally, he said, changes at the statehouse can get bogged down by the number of people and interests involved.

This year, he is instead pushing for Clark County to make changes requiring events of a certain size to have fire personnel on scene and in unified command with police.

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While police and ambulance services were on-duty at the concert and event organizers obtained a required fire department permit and inspection, they were not required to and did not have any on-duty fire personnel at the concert.

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A report released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in August last year also recommended the change and revealed that some of the firefighters responding to the shooting were unaware that the festival was occurring and had to quickly set up a command when they encountered the chaotic aftermath.

The chaos was something Cassell warned lawmakers about during a March 2017 hearing on the bill.

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“If we are waiting for a battalion chief to respond to an event from their station or another location, we have to wait for calls to take place, dispatching, routing and driving through traffic,” Cassell said, according to the committee minutes.

“It terrifies me because we are a resort community, and we have to be prepared on the front end with the right people in the right spot at the right time to mitigate these things as fast as we can,” he testified.

Cassell said Friday that having fire personnel at the country music festival would have made a difference. But he could not quantify its effect and did not suggest lives were lost as a consequence.

While Cassell is pushing for changes at the local level, it’s unclear if Nevada lawmakers will follow suit.

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Assemblyman Michael Sprinkle, D-Sparks, sponsored the 2017 legislation that Cassell supported. Sprinkle declined to comment this week about why his earlier bill failed and whether he would revive the legislation.

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The state Division of Emergency Management has requested a handful of bills addressing emergency resources and procedures, including a measure to quickly license out-of-state doctors to practice in the state during a disaster, something then-Gov. Brian Sandoval allowed under an executive order after the shooting.

It was not clear Friday how many of the measures were spurred by the 2017 shooting. Messages seeking comment from Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Gail Powell were not immediately returned.