Emergency planning — always evolving
Next month — Dec. 14, 2018 — marks six years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 children and six adult staff members. Since that time, there have been numerous mass shootings — in schools, nightclubs, houses of worship, outdoor venues, and elsewhere. They have taken place all across the country and in cities and towns large and small.
Over the past six years, Wilton schools, businesses, churches, and government offices are “absolutely much more prepared” than before, police Chief John Lynch told The Bulletin in an interview on Nov. 16.
“Sandy Hook was the rude awakening for everybody,” he said. “It just shows how one person can cause so much pain and damage. It made no sense. We all had a reckoning.”
In their response plans, police no longer refer to active shooter incidents, calling them active aggressor incidents since harm can be inflicted in so many ways.
When town officials updated emergency plans after Sandy Hook, using the high school as an example Lynch said, “we set up a plan from the initial call to response, to addressing the active aggressor to the aftermath, the injuries, how are we going to coordinate with traffic, other departments, how do we coordinate with the fire department, with EMS, where is our command post? So we have a plan that establishes all that, but with that you need to be able to use it for one of the other schools. People tend to focus on schools. There are a lot of businesses and offices,” he continued, adding that Wilton Library is a particular concern.
Declining to speak in specifics, he said, “I want the public to know that if there’s a lockdown at any of the schools or an incident in any of the office buildings, all of the schools, including the private, receive an immediate text that goes out automatically alerting them to an incident.”
One of the most common failures in these incidents is communications because it is overtaxed, Lynch said.
“You establish a lot of that up front, so you don’t need to communicate as much,” he said, adding other departments know where to go automatically. In addition, Lynch said, he wants to bring the public works department in to block traffic during an incident.
Despite forward planning, Lynch acknowledged that a large incident would overwhelm Wilton’s police force. “Any policy, procedure or plan has to be fluid,” he said. Those plans include relying on outside assistance.
Because many towns would be in the same situation, police chiefs in Fairfield County have entered into an agreement known as the Blue Plan. This allows for assistance to an agency in immediate need while controlling for an over-response. There is also a state training plan, so that every officer from every town responds the same way to an incident.
In August, Wilton police observed a simulated shooting incident training exercise at Hurlbutt Elementary School in Weston. Earlier this year, New Canaan held a training exercise with Silver Hill Hospital.
Wilton has not held a similar training exercise, although fire, EMS and police jointly trained at the School Sisters of Notre Dame earlier this year.
“We haven’t done a walk-through or on-scene scenario,” Lynch said, although they are trying to schedule one, perhaps as early as next month. In the absence of that, emergency officials have held several “table-top” exercises, he said. These plans could be put in place not only for an active aggressor incident, but also a catastrophic event like a bus or train crash.
“Initially we get the call in dispatch, whoever is available will be sent,” Lynch said. “Wilton, being a smaller PD, won’t be able to handle communications.” Police would then call Norwalk police on their hotline and ask for an appropriate level response. Norwalk would then get on a hotline radio and each town would send a designated number of units.
“Within minutes we have 10, 20, 30 [officers], whatever is needed,” he said. “We would automatically notify fire, EMS and public works … we have several areas depending on the scenario, a hot zone, a warm zone, and a command post … Because as police we know we’re going to be overwhelmed, we put the coordination of the command post and other factors in the hands of the fire department leadership. Fire and EMS would work toward setting up triage, medical, staging ambulance, we know if we have multiple casualties we can call an MCI — Mass Casualty Incident — which gives medical control more flexibility under state statute to address things like triage.”
The incident command system has built into it assistance from other towns depending on the size and severity of an emergency.
Assisting the injured
Because victims may be able to survive their injuries if treated and taken to a hospital quickly enough, some cities and towns have their firefighters and EMS responders trained and equipped to go into a scene early to rescue victims, but that is not the plan in Wilton.
“As of now we don’t have that,” Lynch said. “There’s a lot of equipment and training involved in that. There are some fire departments that are trained. It depends on the scenario whether they would be needed or not.”
Some cities across the country are equipping their police with bleeding control kits and training in using them in an effort to assist victims more quickly. Lynch pointed out that each Wilton police car has a rifle with a bag that carries ammunition, a first aid kit, and bleeding control kit. Wilton police are EMRs — emergency medical responders — which is a step below EMTs. Although they are “well-versed in bleeding control and carry tourniquets,” the role of police is to stop the aggressor.
“They will have to walk past the injured to get to the aggressor, even though that goes against all our training,” he said.
Wilton schools are well-prepared for aggravated aggressor incidents, Lynch said, with a well-defined plan. “The schools are committed to that. They train and work with us,” he said.
For at least the past five years, they have had their emergency operations committees that meet monthly. “All the emergency services are represented and meet together because we discuss things like school incidents, how does the staff respond, how do they work with emergency services and not only during the event but after the event? How do you reunify students, how do you count them? All those logistical details are worked out in their emergency plans.”
People who work in town offices have also been trained and police, Lynch said, have extended an offer “to work with anybody, any business, churches, any of them, and many have taken us up on that.
“We come in, go over basics, answer their concerns, sometimes they’ll have their own program or we’ll help them coordinate that. … We welcome it.”