Schools Find Role in National Emergency Communications Plan

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A school district in Colorado launched a new two-way radio training program for all school staff on Monday, and became the first in the nation to formally align its school safety plans with the Department of Homeland Security's vision for interoperable radio communications to improve coordination among agencies responding to emergencies. At the all-day inaugural training workshop, Pueblo County School District 70 school principals learned how to effectively use two-way radio communications within the National Emergency Communications Plan and the Incident Command System.

Greg Keasling

A school district in Colorado launched a new two-way radio training program for all school staff on Monday, and became the first in the nation to formally align its school safety plans with the Department of Homeland Security's vision for interoperable radio communications to improve coordination among agencies responding to emergencies.

At the all-day inaugural training workshop, Pueblo County School District 70 (D70) school principals learned how to effectively use two-way radio communications according to the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP) and the Incident Command System (ICS).

School staff interacted with professional responders to complete a series of brief drills and tabletop exercises at Pueblo West High School, and the proceedings were observed by guests from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Boulder Valley School District, Safe Havens International, and School Safety Partners.

Greg Keasling, D70 Director of Student Services announced that all schools in the district are now linked by two-way radio to all local first responders, including police, fire, emergency medical, emergency management, and other special rescue teams. In the event of a school incident, a communications network can be instantly activated that connects the high-end radios used by professional responders with the lower-end radios used day-to-day by staff in any school in the county.

Jeff Howes, principal of North Mesa Elementary, sees many benefits to this interoperability. "Communications is easier among stakeholders," he explained. "Response time is quicker, mistakes can be quickly corrected or response plans quickly changed, and we can run everyday operations more smoothly."

The principals agreed that the enhanced radio communications allows school staff and local responders to more effectively take action to protect students, teachers, and staff, as well as protect school property. The bridging technology takes less than a day to install and is provided by Denver company SchoolSAFE Communications, which also maintains a 24/7 district monitoring center to track all radio network activity and assure availability. The system is already installed in 48 locations across Colorado.

Keasling tested the technology in various simulations including a full-scale active shooter exercise last year which involved over 1,200 persons and 18 response agencies. He also established a feedback loop with the system's developers to create custom features and improvements for his district.

However, D70 is also taking steps to avoid clogging safety communications by inexperienced school radio users. Captain Lee Roybal with the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office advised, "always call 911 first, even if only to give a location," but in order to incorporate radios he placed a high priority on protocols and evaluations to improve procedures.

Others in the Sheriff's Office concurred. School Resource Officer Bryan DeHerrera said school staff need to learn proper radio etiquette. Comm Officer Katie Decrescontis urged schools to learn from dispatch how to give exactly the information needed within a matter of seconds.

Workshop facilitators Todd Skoglund and Ken Rost showed how "human interoperability" depended on concise dialog to make the radio system work, and they drew on ICS features such as the use of common terminology and unity of command to improve crisis communications between schools and public safety.

They also relied on the objectives of the NECP, which recognizes that the "ability to communicate in real time is critical to establishing command and control at the scene of an emergency, to maintaining event situational awareness, and to operating overall within a broad range of incidents."

Throughout the day, workshop groups focused on major school incidents that would be most effectively addressed using radio: weather-related emergencies, gas leaks, intruder alerts, lost children, nearby wildfires, disgruntled violent parents, bomb threats, child abductions, and active shooters. Keasling added another: "What about first day of school? That's an incident, too!"

Once the school year begins, Keasling will roll out the training program to include more and more school staff.

School principals and district administrators have long questioned the ability to communicate in crisis using traditional emergency resources. For example, they identified in the district's central phone system a design flaw commonly found in schools across the nation: routing a 911 call through a remote call center cloaks the address of the school in distress placing the call, and this can prevent the 911 dispatcher from confirming the location of the emergency.

Also, in the crucial minutes waiting for responders to arrive there has previously been no way to directly provide updates on a developing school crisis, and once responders were on the scene there was no way for them to get real-time information from radio-equipped school staff located throughout the school.

Keasling feels that these problems will been solved through Pueblo County's interoperability program.

Colorado was the first state to make interoperable communications part of a statewide School Response Framework in Senate Bill SB08-181 introduced by Senator Tom Wiens, and signed into law May 14, 2008. All public and charter schools are now mandated to inventory and test interoperable communications equipment at least once every academic term, as well as achieve compliance with the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

The law was based on two national Homeland Security plans, the National Response Framework (NRF) and the National Infrastucture Protection Plan (NIPP). Although the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) has been recognized as the lead for schools in promoting these plans, it is unclear what leadership role, if any, the same office has in promoting interoperable communications to protect schools.

According to School Safety Partners, such leadership would go hand-in-hand with the efforts of OFDFS to promote NIMS compliance. In a bulletin released earlier this year, "NIMS Implementation Activities for Schools and Higher Education Institutions," OSDFS advises schools to develop a proactive process "to identify preparedness funding opportunities for developing interoperability training with their local and regional multi-disciplinary partners."

Meanwhile, Pueblo County has already adopted the objectives of the NECP, including: "integrating emerging technologies with current emergency communications," and "developing shared approaches to training and exercises, improved technical expertise, and enhanced response capabilities." For Keasling, the effort was the result of a successful public-private partnership with SchoolSAFE Communications.

Workshop attendees acknowledged that Keasling has created a top-down culture of interoperability, and school administrators and local responders alike expressed their buy-in. Bob Guagliardo, Pueblo Rural Fire Chief, welcomed exercising with school faculty and offered additional radio training for all teachers. He also saw a need to inject the new two-way radio system into county-wide exercises.

Rye Elementary Principal Sue Moore came up with her own list of corrective actions for her school's safety plan: "development of correct protocols for radio use for incidents, collaboration with local emergency responders, practice with scenarios."

When asked who should be assigned responsibility for these corrective actions, she answered with a smile, "I guess that would be me."

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