Making a tribute for the fallen

Two days from now, the families of the four Lakewood police officers killed last week will file past legions of honor guards and waving flags into the Tacoma Dome.

If all goes as planned, the memorial service for Mark Renninger, Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards will be seamless and elegant, a model of decorum.

But behind the scenes, planning for the event has been anything but decorous.

Logistically, the event is staggering in its complexity.

More than 20,000 law enforcement personnel from across the country are descending on Tacoma for the occasion. Well over 1,000 police cruisers and other emergency vehicles will follow the families to the Dome, blocking traffic and interrupting bus routes for hours.

To prepare for the event, more than 50 people from a dozen different public agencies have been working 12-hour days for the past week, seeing to details as mundane as positioning catering trucks and portable toilets to handling traffic control, bomb sweeps and plainclothes security.

Making it all look easy is part of the plan, says Jody Woodcock, a program manager for the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management.

“We want to take care of all the details so the families and the law enforcement community don’t have to think about them,” she said.


The organizational structure set up to plan Tuesday’s ceremony follows a tried and true approach called the “Incident Command System,” a quasi-military approach that relies on clear delegation of authority and chain of command.

ICS is commonly used throughout the United States for a wide range of emergencies – particularly when several different agencies are involved.

“It’s a way to get order out of chaos,” Tom Minor said. Minor, a Pierce County Emergency Management program manager in charge of urban search and rescue, sometimes is referred to by fellow workers as “the Godfather of ICS” because of his years of experience using the system in assignments to disasters around the world.

The system started in California in the 1960s to deal with wildfires, and since has become a standard that has been used in disasters from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to Hurricane Katrina.

In Lakewood, the ICS was set up hours after the killings, when it became obvious that the Lakewood Police Department was too small – and too emotionally involved – to handle the investigation and arrangements for the four officers, whose deaths quickly became international news.

On the ICS chart at the funeral ceremony command center at Lakewood police headquarters, Lakewood Lt. Dave Guttu is at the top, as incident commander. Directly below him are Minor and Bryan Pearson, assistant chief at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue.

From there, the tasking boxes descend through the broad categories: operations, plans, logistics, administration and finance, and on down to dozens of more detailed duties, including pall bearers, honor guards and security.

The boxes are filled with employees drawn from an array of other public agencies, mostly police and fire officers from various jurisdictions around the Puget Sound region.

The scope of the planning is overwhelming. Aside from the procession and memorial service, there are dignitaries to deal with, limos to rent, parking to find, and food and shelter for 20,000 visitors.

“Traffic control obviously is a huge issue,” Woodcock said. “The family motorcade and procession will cause extensive road closures for at least a few hours.”

Access to so many businesses along the route will be blocked that organizers printed 1,000 informational fliers and distributed them to proprietors.

The planning is complicated by the fact that no one really knows how many law enforcement and other public safety professionals will show up.

“Not everybody lets us know first,” Woodcock said. “Sometimes they just show up. There’s really no telling how many will do that.”

Also, she said, there will probably be a large contingent of soldiers who will want to attend.

“Lakewood is a military town,” Woodcock said. “In some senses the whole community is a large family.”

“It’s tough to estimate how many might want to come,” she said. “We’re trying to use past ceremonies as models, but the impact of losing four officers at once is something we haven’t experienced. ”


Organizers say their job is made easier by overwhelming support from the larger community.

McChord Air Force Base is suspending flights Tuesday and has opened runways and hangars as gathering points. Fort Lewis is providing logistical assistance.

Support from the public is obvious just a few steps outside the situation planning room at Lakewood police headquarters, where a mound of flowers, handwritten signs and thank-you notes has grown into a mountain.

Every day, people pay their respects in a steady stream, arriving in such numbers that traffic on Lakewood Way has been kept at a slow crawl.

The public support inside the center is obvious, too, from the donated dinners that keep showing up, the pizza and the gallons of coffee in big cardboard containers from Forza Coffee Co. and Starbucks, all freely given.

The American Red Cross has donated food and water. Alaska Airlines has given tickets to family members flying in from other states. Local hotels are giving complimentary rooms for family members and cutting rates on hundreds of others booked by visiting police officers. Local UPS stores volunteered to do all the printing necessary for programs and informational fliers.

“Over and over people say, ‘I just feel so honored to be able to help,’” Woodcock said. “We’re getting hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from people saying, ‘We don’t know what to offer, but if you need anything, just call us.’”

One of the more unusual groups to have stepped forward is Behind the Badge, a Washington nonprofit organization whose “Line of Duty Death Response Team” specializes in dealing with the aftermath of police deaths.

Behind the Badge volunteers are seeing to the personal needs of families and consulting with organizers on the highly standardized protocol of law enforcement funerals, from the bagpipe dirges to the presentation of flags.


The command center is set up in a large assembly room in Lakewood police headquarters, a room usually divided in half by a folding curtain, but now expanded to its maximum size.

At least 50 men and women have been working there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. since shortly after the killings, sitting shoulder to shoulder on folding chairs at long tables, working the phones and staring intently into computers.

Uniform jackets of a dozen different police and fire departments are draped over the backs of chairs.

The walls of the crisis center are covered with maps and poster-size blown-up aerial photographs: the runways and hangars at McChord where the emergency vehicles will gather; the neighborhood around the Police Department, where the caravan will be joined by family members; a multiblock area surrounding the Tacoma Dome where participants will gather for the ceremony.

A poster with photos of the four officers hangs on the front wall, smiling down on the room above the words: “Four Fallen Heroes.”

Precisely at 5 p.m., Minor moves to the front of the room and announces the afternoon briefing. The phone conversations are drawn to a quick close; clicking keyboards stutter and stop.

“First, a moment of silence for our fallen officers,” Minor says, and a hush falls over the room that is so total it is shocking.

Eyes look away, cloud up, stare at the floor.

Fifteen seconds later, Minor is back on task.

“All right. We’re on target so far,” he says. “On paper the plans look good. But remember, it depends on many, many moving pieces coming together at the same time.”

And then it’s on to task force reports: There is parking to be found, alternative assembly halls arranged for citizens who want to watch the ceremony on live video feeds, communication issues to resolve.

Dan Hudson is a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy who, like Minor, is a veteran of nearly every American civil disaster in the past 20 years.

In the command center, he wears a bright yellow vest over his uniform. On the back is a big white sign that reads “PLANS,” identifying him as head of planning on the ICS chart.

The command structure for planning the memorial service is the same as other disasters, Hudson said, but this one is different because it is so intensely personal.

“There’s a lot more hugging going on,” he said.

All disasters are emotional, Hudson said, but the emotion is rarely so intense that it interferes with work. This time, he said, it is difficult to set the emotions aside and deal with the task at hand.

“It’s hard to think about the future when we’re so emotionally impacted,” he said. “It’s difficult at times to try to think effectively.”

Countless times through each day, Hudson said, sudden waves of pain sweep through the room, stopping people in their tracks.

“Every moment there’s one reminder or another,” he said. “It’s very difficult to move forward and focus on what we’re planning. For all of us, I think, there’s a ‘There but for the grace of God’ thought in the back of our heads.

“The officers who died were highly qualified professionals. They didn’t make mistakes. They did everything right.

“It could have been any one of us.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693