Schools revising emergency plans

Lockdown provisions, improved communication among the steps taken

October 28, 2002|By Tricia Bishop and Linda Linley | Tricia Bishop and Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

School emergency practices used to consist of fire drills, evacuations and, occasionally, hiding under a desk, which was supposed to protect kids not only from earthquakes and other natural disasters, but nuclear war.

But ever since the 1999 killings at Columbine, response plans have had to take into account shooters from within a school's population, and now - with the recent sniper attacks - from without.

To ensure safety and to reassure parents during the past three weeks, administrators blocked school entrances, added security guards, canceled athletic events, rerouted field trips to avoid Interstate 95 and kept some students inside all day. Three Baltimore private schools - Bryn Mawr, Gilman and Roland Park Country - kept students off the $3 million walkways built last year over Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway.

"This was one of those situations that was different from Columbine and different from 9/11 because it was ongoing," said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the State Department of Education. "We couldn't have planned for this."

But they're going to try.

School systems throughout the Baltimore region are already using 20/20 hindsight from the sniper crisis to review and revamp their existing plans. Many of those plans are extremely sophisticated - making provisions for lockdowns, clear communication with local authorities, detailed hierarchies of responsibility and evacuation procedures that leave little to chance.

Amid the sniper crisis, Carroll County unveiled a color-coded system to denote security levels. Howard County has learned it needs to get information to principals faster and is considering handing out flashcards outlining critical emergency response steps. Public schools in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties are assessing their security capabilities and plan to hold meetings to discuss possible improvements.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County, the site of the first sniper attacks, chronicled every step it took through the crisis so administrators there can look for improvements and changes.

"When we realized this would quickly became a long-term problem, the superintendent made it very clear that we would begin taking detailed notes and record keeping in order to preserve the decision-making process," said school spokesman Brian Porter.

In 1999, the State Department of Education began requiring that all schools submit emergency response plans for evaluation and updating.

Howard County decided to go a step further and had school officials take a course in multi-hazard safety offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"One of the lessons we learned from Columbine was that schools can have great plans, but if they're not part of a bigger plan, they're [worthless]," said Tom Olshanski, a trainer with FEMA's National Emergency Training Center outside Emmitsburg.

FEMA trains educators to become part of a community command center, working with police, fire and rescue personnel to cover all bases.

"We want to minimize the chaos that occurs in the first few minutes of an emergency," said Ron Miller, Howard County school risk management specialist. "We do that by getting the information we need [from local officials] to make sound and reasonable decisions."

That system was put to the test when the first reports of a sniper shooting came through on Oct. 3. Howard County school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke took on the role of incident commander, and immediately assembled an advisory team and called the county police chief for consultation.

Once they had determined a lockdown was in order, e-mails went out to school principals detailing the plan.

Since then, school officials realized they needed to refine the meaning of certain words and phrases - such as lockdown and modified lockdown - because not all principals understood the terminology.

"There are little things we need to clarify," Miller said. "There's always room for improvement. So we're reassessing what we've done over the last few weeks."

Carroll County's new color-coded system was a direct result of the sniper situation.

"The one primary thing that we learned from it and really needed to put into place is what we call `levels of security,'" said security coordinator Larry Faries. "It's a code system much like other systems that starts at yellow and moves to orange and red" as security is tightened.

It helped the school system's central office communicate safety status to its principals.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington caused school systems across the country to create or update their emergency plans.

At Garrison Forest School in Reisterstown, Headmaster G. Peter O'Neill had a security audit conducted at the 110-acre boarding and day school that fronts on busy Reisterstown Road.

As a result, he has hired a director of security, has restricted traffic through the campus, has limited deliveries to certain areas, is upgrading campus communications, and is looking at additional lighting and landscaping to screen the campus.

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