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Finding Ways to Maximize Limited Resources

By Becky Lewis
May  2013

In a school safety training session in a metropolitan area, the police chief, the tactical team leader and the bomb squad commander all would likely participate in the class and learn valuable lessons about working together. In a rural area, those three jobs may very well belong to the same person.

“Crisis Management for School-Based Incidents: Partnering Rural Law Enforcement, First Responders, and Local School Systems,” a free training offered by the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium (RDPC) and funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, focuses on how to handle school crisis events, including an active shooter situation in a rural K-12 school environment where resources are limited and interagency assistance is many miles away. Instructor Scott Lowry says the most important goal of the training is to teach participants – including school personnel, law enforcement and other first responders such as EMS and fire – to recognize the limits they have as a community and to find ways to mitigate the lack of resources: “People have to take on multiple responsibilities in a moment of crisis and it’s important for the community to identify the gaps ahead of time.”

One community that recently hosted such a training is the small western Montana town of Libby (population approximately 2,700), located in the Kootenai National Forest between the Cabinet Mountains to the south and the Purcell Mountains to the north. Lisa Oedewaldt, who wears three hats herself (deputy director of emergency management, public health emergency preparedness coordinator and flood plain manager), heard about the training through a local school administrator and first participated in a session in the reservation community of Browning. Oedewaldt was so impressed she then worked with the Montana Department of Disaster and Emergency Services and RDPC to bring a session to Libby on April 1, 2013.

“Scott took our high school (560 students, grades 7-12) and developed a scenario focusing on dealing with an active shooter there. I told him what our area was like, who coordinated with whom and how the agencies worked together. Scott incorporated all of it into our scenario, including how remote we are and how if we had to close the one major highway, we’d be completely cut off,” Oedewaldt says. “He made the principal decide to change the way the school does lockdown drills and the local police to decide to go from waiting for backup to the first person on the scene goes in. They really changed the way they plan to handle things because of the training.”

She adds, “We went through pictures of each school and looked at things like placement of bushes, and he encouraged them to think about ways to improve safety. It was just so interactive and everybody got involved.”

“Everybody” included officers from the six-person Libby Police Department, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s office, the Montana Highway Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service police. The latter three agencies have a total of 32 officers for the entire county, which includes two other school districts that have not yet participated in the training.

“In dealing with extreme rural areas like Libby, a lot of the conversation during the day focuses on what they need to do and how to do it with limited resources. In metropolitan areas, where they can pull from the adjoining jurisdictions, the demand on the community is not as great,” Lowry says.

In the eight hours of instruction time, Lowry works with rural areas on developing emergency plans that they maintain as living documents, performing a school vulnerability assessment, looking at available assets and developing a strategy for threat assessment management.

“Our philosophy is if we prepare for the worst case scenario, everyone will still respond appropriately to any lesser incidents. We talk about making appropriate decisions, such as when to stay in the classroom and when to go out the window,” Lowry says. “We want to educate our teachers to make rational decisions during irrational times so they can further ensure the safety of the children in the classroom.”

For law enforcement participants, the objective is to teach them to train in the way they expect to respond, because in an emergency, they will instinctively respond the way they were trained. One of the main objectives of this training is to get law enforcement and school personnel on the same page to ensure collaborative strategies are in place for effective crisis prevention, response and recovery in the K-12 environment.

The training also emphasizes the recovery phase, because, Lowry says, many jurisdictions do a good job with emergency operation plans and lockdown drills, but “what escapes a lot of people is post-incident recovery. When children have experienced a traumatic event, the mental health aspect needs to be engaged immediately thereafter. The ultimate goal is to get back to normalcy as a community, and the mental health portion is critical to that. Chardon High School in Ohio immediately implemented a mental health and recovery phase that should become a model of how to recover from a school shooting.”

About the Course
RDPC has offered AWR 148 “Crisis Management for School-Based Incidents: Partnering Rural Law Enforcement, First Responders, and Local School Systems” 316 times and trained 8,925 individuals from May 2009 through May 2013. Requesting agencies must be vetted and, if approved, need only provide a classroom equipped with audio/visual equipment large enough to accommodate between 20 and 40 participants. Interested persons who cannot attend a training session may take a web-based version. More than 900 individuals have taken advantage of the web-based option as of May 2013.

To request this or any other RDPC course, visit http://www.ruraltraining.org, select the link for “Request a Course” and complete the online form. You will be contacted to complete the verification process, and receive a date and an instructor. Requests can also be made by calling toll free to (877) 855-RDPC.