Emergency Operations Committee makes strides in ensuring school safety
To ensure the safety of Wilton’s public school students and staff, the District Emergency Operations Committee implemented and enhanced a number of initiatives this year.
The committee is a broad-based representative group comprised of Wilton public school and town staff.
On June 21, three of its members — Wilton High School social studies teacher Brian Jacobs, Human Resources Director Maria Coleman, and Deputy Fire Chief Mark Amatrudo shared some of the committee’s recent work and accomplishments with the Board of Education.
Coleman said the committee “met monthly” and “looked at the emergency plans for the district, identified needs for training and provided training.”
“The overall goal was really to ensure that we had consistency of practice and language as it related to emergency plans for the district,” she said.
Jacobs, who serves as the instructional leader for the committee, said “one of the biggest projects” the committee has to undertake each year is updating of the district security plan.
“This year resulted in a sort of catch-all [manual] for any information that might be necessary to maintain safe and efficient operation in case of any kind of emergency the school district might face,” he said.
The District All-Hazards Manual includes “a tremendous amount of information that could be used to respond to a number of potential crises that we might have to respond to,” said Jacobs, such as phone chains, emergency contacts, school maps, and emergency drill plans.
This year, the committee fully implemented a standard response protocol created by the I Love You Guys Foundation, said Jacobs, which creates “a consistent plan that can be used across all schools” for lockdown, lockout, evacuations, and shelter-in-place emergency responses.
The protocol also provides a “clear description of what the expectations are for teachers and students in order to maintain a safe environment and efficient response to emergencies,” he said.
Jacobs said there has been a “very good response from teachers.”
“As we went through a variety of drills throughout the school year,” he said, “we found that they were more comfortable with what their responsibilities are, understanding specifically what drills are being run and what their expectations are.”
The protocol is posted throughout each school building, visible for a “quick review” in the event of a real situation, he said.
The committee also expanded different drills across district this year.
“Each school has to maintain a variety of 10 different drills throughout the school year, including all the drills that we have within the response protocol,” said Jacobs.
This year, the committee stepped up its efforts with the types of drills and their complexity, said Jacobs, by creating “more situations” and conducting “unannounced drills.”
“We put them in situations where they have to think on their feet a little bit and weren’t necessarily expecting something to happen because in the real world, of course, you’re not going to get a forewarning for an actual emergency,” he said.
“This has been an effort that we’ve been moving toward to try to create the most realistic situation that we can in order to get our students and our staff as familiarized as possible with what their responsibilities would be if something ever does require an actual response.”
In the past, most drills have been conducted when students are in classrooms, said committee member and Middlebrook Dean of Students Jory Higgins. This year, the schools tried something different — a lockdown drill from the cafeteria.
“One of the things we can try to do is challenge ourselves to be ready for the unexpected,” said Higgins.
“With the thought that staff are supposed to have duty-free lunch and there’s food that we don’t want to have wasted or sitting out,” Higgins said, “we set up a schedule by which we could practice in the morning.”
Students were told to go in the cafeteria “like it’s lunchtime,” sit where they normally do, and were given instructions on what to do “when the time comes,” said Higgins, “and they were able to do it very, very well.”
After the cafeteria drill, Higgins said, the committee went over what worked and what didn’t, and received suggestions from school resources officers.
Reunification and kits
“The procedures to reunify parents with students after an emergency is a very high-stress, very critical situation,” said Amatrudo, who was named 2016 Emergency Manager of the Year by the Northeast States Emergency Consortium. “It’s complicated, it’s dynamic and there’s a lot of emotion involved.”
During the year, the committee had the opportunity to develop a large-scale plan for each of the schools.
“In that process, the groups developed their basic structure for the plan — where they will go — and really mapped things out,” said Amatrudo.
“The next step — and the challenge for this coming year — is to start actually walking through those, ultimately to test them, refine them and then implement them.”
Federal grant funding through the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program was used to implement a radio system that allows the schools to communicate directly with first responders in emergency events.
“Our region received 600 portable radios and a bank of 700 MHz channels. It’s actually built off the towers that the Connecticut State Police uses,” said Amatrudo.
“The system provided us a vehicle whereby we could link the school, the school district office, the fire department, police department, dispatch center and the EMS folks on one frequency in the event of an emergency at the schools.”
There are radios in all four schools, as well as the central office, and all administrators and main office secretaries are trained to use them.
“When we started phasing in security cameras about eight years ago, we recognized that it was going to be a gradual process of assessing our needs and adding cameras,” said Coleman.
This year, a tactical expert from the Wilton Police Department and a security company representative joined an administrator in walking through the high school and around the perimeter “to identify any additional areas of vulnerability,” said Coleman.
“We’ve found over the years that they’re not always being used for large-scale emergencies, which is a good thing,” she said.
Rather, the cameras are often used when there’s an injury or disciplinary incident that needs to be investigated. They’re also preventative.
The committee will look at recently received quotes from a camera company and make a recommendation for the purchase of additional cameras, which, Coleman said will either be funded “through a grant or through any security task force funding that may be available.”