Disaster exercise successful
Published: Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
An eerie silence hung over the Custer school complex last Tuesday afternoon. In the midst of a lockdown that had shuttered both the junior/senior high school and the elementary, the only sounds that could be heard were flags flapping in the breeze, the occasional song from a passing bird or the crack of radio traffic between first responders.
A single 8-1/2 x 11” flier started a full-scale emergency services exercise in Custer, Fall River and Lawrence counties, an exercise responders hoped would show them what their strengths were in responding to such an incident, as well as where they needed improvement. The flyer read:
The people of the great state of South Dakota have chosen to ignore the scheduled destruction of our environment by the continuation of the Keystone pipeline and uranium mining. Unless these projects are stopped immediately, we will destroy what is near and dear to you like you are destroying Mother Earth.
We will not be ignored anymore.
Mother Earth Army-Northern Independent Echelon
Environmental Liberation Front
After “receiving” the above note, emergency responders sprang into action and a multi-agency, two-hour exercise was underway, with participants from the National Park Service, Forest Service, Custer School District, Custer Regional Hospital, Custer Volunteer Fire Department, Argyle Volunteer Fire Department, Pringle Volunteer Fire Department, Custer County Search and Rescue, Custer County Sheriff’s Department, Custer County Highway Department and the City of Custer.
“The reason you do the exercises is that there is always room for improvement,” said Custer County emergency management director Mike Carter, who helped coordinate the event.âï¿½ï¿½“My hat is off to the first response personnel. Here is a community that has taken a look at some of the various serious factors and the world we live in and basically is charging head-long into something that is very important to the community. There is no easy solution to these things.”
First responders didn’t know what scenario they would be responding to and were thrown a few curveballs along the way. After the threat was received, the schools went into an immediate hard lock down, with students safely secured in the buildings and no access inside. Sheriff’s deputies cordoned off access to the schools, both at the intersection of Hwy. 16 and Sidney Park Road and both sides of Wildcat Lane.
During the exercise, responders also had to deal with the threat of a possible shooter at the Armory, a car packed with explosives parked on Wildcat Lane near the school and frantic parents who attempted to break through barricades to get to their children.
“Whenever there is a threat to the school like that, passive or aggressive, the first thing the school is going to do is contact (Custer County Sheriff) Rick (Wheeler) or myself,”âï¿½ï¿½Carter said.âï¿½ï¿½“We were hoping, and it did happen, that they do a hard lock down in that situation. The solution to these problems is to eat the elephant one bite at a time. If we know those kids are secure, that’s one less thing we have to do when we get there.”
Carter said the explosives-laden car was a “Plan B,” driven into the scenario to force responders to have to think on their feet on how to deal with another threat on top of the threatening flier. Further complicating things for responders was learning that a bomb detection team was not available from Ellsworth in this scenario.
“It was just another problem they had to deal with,”âï¿½ï¿½Carter said.
Carter said when a real-life disaster happens, the first hour or two are the most confusing. Although the ideal exercise would last an entire day, having a two-hour exercise provides the stress needed to make quick decisions and find out strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s a starting point. That’s the way we designed it,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“I think we learned a lot of things out of it. That’s why you have the exercise.”
Carter, Wheeler and state’s attorney Tracy Kelley have been working with the schools to see what can be done to improve security and safety.
“This exercise is a stellar example of the byproduct of that,”âï¿½ï¿½Carter said.
The exercise was a Homeland Security Evaluation and Exercise Program, the results of which are noted and sent to the government. A state management assistance team designed the exercise and county leaders were asked if they would like to participate, as were the schools. The exercise took six months of planning.
“The school has a plan and we have a plan. What we hope to accomplish is to see where the bridge needs to be between the two plans,” Carter said.âï¿½ï¿½“We’re armed with that information now.”
Each participating entity in the plan was to designate a safety officer to make sure nobody got hurt during the exercise, and independent evaluators were involved to observe and report what they saw that could be changed. How well the incident command system was used, how well the communication plan went and how evacuation and relocation of students were all monitored and reported on.
An emergency operation center was operated out of the fire hall, and school administrative staff was whisked to the center to take head counts of children in the schools.
Those who participated made sure to refer to their calls as part of an exercise over the radio. In addition, law enforcement was augmented and participants were told at a briefing prior to the start of the exercise that they could bring the exercise to a halt if needed if someone were to get injured or a real-life call needed to take resources away from the exercise as it played out.
Custer School District superintendent Scott Lepke said he was happy with how the exercise went on the school’s end, saying the district’s sole purpose in such an event is to keep students and staff safe.
“The exercise proved to me our crisis plan works. The bottom line is ensuring the safety and well-being of our students,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“Our schools are prepared for emergencies. The purpose of the exercise was to evaluate our procedures. We did that and did learn that we do need to make some changes and enhance what we are currently doing. I am a firm believer that we can always improve and get better.”
After the conclusion of the exercise, a “hot wash” was held, where participants go over the exercise while it is still fresh in their minds to discuss what they thought went right and what could use more work.
Lepke cited the need to improve communication with law enforcement and first responders and how to interact with them during such an event, as something that needs work.
“Notes were taken and will be reviewed and changes made to our plans,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“Any changes will be implemented at the beginning of the next school year.”
Wheeler said although the department didn’t have as many deputies as he would have liked operating during the exercise, he believes those who did participate did a good job.
“We could have stationed people at (different) places or at least blocked a road so we could go to another (area) to address the injects we were having and we could have utilized other resources more, but, all in all I think it went well,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“The kids in the school were our main focus.”
Custer Volunteer Fire Department chief Joel Behlings also agreed there is always room for improvement, also citing the need for better interagency communication as well as better cooperation and understanding and use of the Incident Command System.
“I feel we are prepared. We have a lot of very knowledgeable, level-headed people,” he said.âï¿½ï¿½“Are we experts at this type of response? No. But we know where to go to get the resources needed to handle situations.”
All of the responders said it was a positive to have the school on board, and Lepke said the exercise was nothing but a benefit to the school district. Carter said for as few people as the area has on hand to answer such calls, they do an outstanding job.
“On any given day we can depend on ‘X’ amount of people. They are the best in the world, but we can’t create bodies,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“We’ve got what we got. These first responders take care of up to a quarter of a million people for five months out of the year. Iâï¿½ï¿½don’t think there is much they can’t accomplish when they put their minds to it.”
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