Recently, our department embarked on a new journey to assist the local school district with practicing their emergency operations plans for active assailants. In the past, full-scale exercises have been very burdensome and intimidating. There are many moving parts that must come together effectively to complete the exercise properly. Some of the challenges that take place for a successful exercise are being able to identify the expectations of the exercise, developing the exercise scenario, creating documentation, coordinating logistics and planning for exercise evaluation and notifications. Don’t let these hills turn into mountains and stop the forward progress that you need to successfully exercise the plans. Practice the emergency operating plans with your facilities.
Incident Within an Incident
Always prepare for the unexpected! Our plan for these exercises included common language key words to use. The messages either started with “This is a drill” or “Real world incident.” This was meant to provide some differentiation between the two events. During our recent exercise, we had the unfortunate circumstance of dealing with an incident within an incident. We had completed the lockdown exercise with our second school and while notifying the communication center that any new reports received from this point forward would be considered a real-world incident and not part of the exercise, the dispatcher promptly asked that I hold the line. After a short time, the dispatcher returned to the line to explain that there was a real-world incident on the adjacent school campus to our last exercise. The lockdown was now a real-world incident!
As you can imagine, our situational awareness was peaked. It took only a couple minutes to lockdown all of the facilities within the area through our notification system. Law enforcement was forced to search the entire campus to ensure each building was safe but because of the geographic location of the facilities this posed special issues. There were nine buildings in total that would need to be patrolled and secured to identify and mitigate any potential issues. Several of the affected buildings in the area were not all city school properties. The process took nearly an hour to complete before the “all clear” could be established. Providentially, we had a solution to notify all the facilities in the area of the impending situation.
Months before these incidents occurred, our department established a mass notification system that was primarily instituted for resident and business notifications for disasters. Notification systems provide community leaders with the ability to reach their target quickly. This gives the ability to make phone calls, send text messages, and post to social media, traditional media releases and emails. The software gives the ability to push a message through all pathways at the same time. It takes less than 30 seconds to compose a message before transmitting. The messages will be delivered minutes later. All of these capabilities were great but with lockdowns, we needed to take it one step further.
Since the inception of our notification system, our department made every attempt to include as many people as possible in the system to make it as effective as possible. The system is only as effective as the data that has been entered. We established relationships early in our program with each city and county school district, daycare, hospital and local YMCA. Each of the aforementioned facilities have large populations of children that could be subjected to a specific threat and were considered a critical facility for lockdowns. The contact information for the leaders at each facility was added into our software and geocoded to each specific address. This would allow notifications to only be sent to certain areas, specific buildings and only certain people to notify of a lockdown concern. When the initial lockdown occurs, notifying key officials in the facility aids in a prompt lockdown and increases efficiency. Law enforcement would not want parents notified initially of a lockdown as this may cause more pandemonium and complicate the already complex chaotic issue. Parental, resident or media notifications will come later in the incident.
We are glad to report after the successful completion of the “Real-World” lockdown, everyone was able to go home safely and no single threat was located. Everyone involved with the exercise and actual incidents were able to take away many lessons learned from both events. If your department had a notification system in place, I would encourage you to consider adding a lockdown group into the system. Log the facilities into the software by location. Meet with the schools, daycares, hospitals and other large group meeting locations and obtain contact information for every leader to input into the notification structure and update the information regularly. Summer provides a great opportunity to meet with school leaders to build these relationships and build your notification data. When public safety is imminently threatened, deliver your message and save lives! Our childrens’ lives depend on it!
Eddie Bowling is a career firefighter with the City of Thomasville with 16 years of service. He serves as Emergency Management Director for Thomasville and manages the rescue, medical and safety programs within the fire department. He serves as the chairperson for Davidson County’s Local Emergency Planning Committee. Bowling has an AAS in Emergency Medical Sciences from DCCC and a BS in Emergency and Disaster Management from Western Carolina University with a Minor in Criminal Justice. Currently, Bowling is a certified Emergency Manager, Type 3 AHIMT and listed as NIMS instructor with North Carolina Emergency Management. He can be contacted at [email protected]