Bomb threat scenario tests school plans, emergency operations
HOT SPRINGS – Suspicious people and vehicles, a threatening letter and a presumed bomb at the Hot Springs School were all part of last Tuesday’s Region 4 School Exercise.
The exercise, which also saw similar circumstances befall schools in Custer, Sturgis, Deadwood and Rapid City, was designed to test the emergency plan of each respective school, but also the capabilities of local emergency personnel and the communications among all entities.
Here is how the scripted events went down.
While the drill actually commenced at 12:30 p.m., things began early when a bus driver reported a suspicious SUV with several people following during his morning route. Next, a letter handed to a student at the Elementary School over the lunch hour is turned in to Principal. The letter threatens that “things dear to everyone will be destroyed unless continuation of the Keystone pipeline and uranium mining is stopped immediately.”
While the entire scenario was scripted, the use of pertinent and timely issues seemed to make it more realistic. Similar letters were scripted to have been sent to the other respective schools, each of which had slightly different scenarios presented to them.
In preparation for the drill, and Emergency Operations Center (EOC) had been set up in the basement of the Fall River County Courthouse. The same doctrine was followed during the bomb threat that occurred at the school earlier this year.
When the letter was reported to the Emergency Operations Center, and a young male was reported to be rattling doors at the school, attempting to gain entry, a full-scale lockdown – as per school emergency protocol – was instigated.
While the outside doors of all school buildings are locked at all times, the school lockdown calls for students and staff to stay in rooms, pull the window shades and above all, lock all doors and remain quiet.
An obstacle to overcome was a lack of available bomb squads. With similar requests coming from throughout the Black Hills, the local squad – based at Ellsworth Air Force Base – was immediately detailed to the Rapid City School, as they called first. It sent the remainder of the EOCs searching.
Fall River County Emergency Manager Frank Maynard, who was in the EOC placed a call to the Office of Emergency Management in Pierre, requesting that a bomb squad and a bomb sniffing dog be sent to Hot Springs. If that request could not be met, Maynard asked for the Governor to mobilize the National Guard to assist with the situation.
“That would be our normal procedure,” Maynard said. “When we call Pierre, it becomes the OEM’s job to find us the resources that we need and to get them moving in our direction.”
Minutes later the OEM returned Maynard’s call, stating that a bomb squad was en route from Sioux Falls.
“I thought things went very smoothly,” said Hot Springs High School Principal Mary Weiss. “We followed our procedures, accounted for all the students and checked that the classroom doors were locked.” Weiss said that she went around to some of the doors, knocked on them and identified herself to be let in.
The doors remained closed to Weiss and students remained quiet, which is exactly what they were supposed to do.
In fact, the extreme quiet brought a question as to it possibly being too quiet, to Superintendent Dr. Donald Marchant.
“You could hear a pin drop in the hallways,” Marchant said. “I wonder if we would be better off to have some music or some sort of white noise taking place. For instance, if this drill takes place in the winter, there could be students or staff with a cold. Any noise would be easily identified to someone outside the classroom and would let them know that there were students inside.”
Middle School Principal John Fitzgerald, who was the main contact person at the school, said he was very please in the results of the drill.
“We completed a full-school lockdown in less than a minute,” Fitzgerald said. “That tells me that the training that our staff has taken and passed on to the kids is working. This was a great practice drill for us and everyone else included.”
Marchant added that when he was superintendent in Mitchell, Neb., a very large drill – including a SWAT team – took place at their school. One thing that came out of the drill was a way to easily identify rooms to outside personnel.
“We went back and added letters and numbers in windows of classrooms,” Marchant said, “to make it more identifiable for law enforcement and other emergency personnel. It’s easier to direct them to Room G2, with those identifiers on the window, than to tell them ‘The students are in the science lab.’”
Marchant said that one of the first things he requested when he took the superintendent’s job was to have the same type of identification system added to the rooms in the Hot Springs School buildings. Another suggestion is for the school to have a recorded message that callers – mainly parents – would receive, reassuring them that the students were safe.
“Those are the kinds of things that we want to find out,” Maynard noted. “It’s good that things went well, but we also need to learn and address problems that arise.” All issues were discussed in a short “hot wash” immediately following the exercise and will be brought up again at a more extensive debriefing later.
One problem that came up was the lack of a local Public Information Officer or PIO, to be a liaison between the EOC and the public or media. “Having a PIO is good because it allows others to continue doing their work while one person talks to parents and media.”
In the mock drill, a radio and television station was included; making information requests, while parents were using social media platforms to try to determine what was taking place.
“There are certainly things on which we can work,” Weiss said. “That’s why you have drills, so you can find the problems and fix them before you actually need them.”
Fitzgerald said that following the Sandy Hook, Connecticut shooting, he met with his student council, who asked him how they could insure their safety.
“That’s a powerful question, coming from the kids themselves,” Fitzgerald said.
“I think having a drill like this helps take steps toward greater safety for students and staff.”