Berks County to implement All Hazards plan for public schools

When it comes to facing a serious emergency, it is only natural that schools belonging to the public school system in Berks County have emergency plans in place to protect students and staff. Yet the details of a school’s plan may not be known to assisting first responders who come from outside of the immediate vicinity to provide help. This can create communication difficulties between the responders and school staff and students within a situation when every second counts.

With this hurdle in mind, the public school system in Berks County, at the direction of the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, are moving toward completion of a standardized county-wide emergency preparedness and response program known as Berks County All Hazards Planning (AHP).

“What (AHP implementation) will do is place a leaner county-wide emergency plan in place,” said Caernarvon Township Police Chief Paul Stolz, who also heads the Berks County Police Chiefs Association. “There is not currently a standardized plan for all of (Berks County’s public schools). Once (AHP) is put into place we will know what everyone is expected to do in case of a major emergency – school personnel, students, police, fire, EMS… …we will know across the board what will be done in case of an emergency.”

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Back on November 15, 2012, Stolz was among the many professionals who participated in the All Hazards Planning Kick-Off Meeting at the BCIU - a meeting involving all public schools in Berks County where plans for rolling out AHP first began to unfold. Since that meeting at BCIU, there have been multiple work sessions and consultations, and these will continue to occur periodically until March 14, 2013, the date of the All Hazard Planning Implementation Meeting.

AHP has its roots in the Keeping Kids Safe Initiative, an effort which began four years ago led by BCIU Executive Director Dr. John George. The BCIU functions as an arm of the PA Department of Education (DOE) and as a liaison between the DOE and the schools, acting as a service resource, providing leadership, and allowing for systematically communication across schools in the county. In his executive role, Dr. George designed Keeping Kids Safe as he strived to make schools as safe as they can be so that students and teachers can focus on their education. Each year Keeping Kids Safe launches a campaign focused on safety – and this year’s darling is AHP.

According to Dr. Jill Hackman, Executive Assistant Director of BCIU, the AHP model is inspired by similar plans belonging to the Federal Emergency Management Association, the PA Emergency Management Association, and at the core of AHP is the Standard Response Protocol: a utilitarian and flexible approach to emergency response that was developed by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation. The “I Love U Guys Foundation” was started in 2009 for the purpose of advancing student safety by providing programs and initiatives for schools. The founder and executive director of the foundation, John Michael Keyes, began his work in honor of his daughter Emily, was shot and killed in the 2006 Platte Canyon High School incident in Colorado.

Chapter Ten of the PA DOE School Code, which came into effect in December of 2012, states that schools have plan in place to address a minimum of 26 emergency scenarios (although a school can have more). For this reason there are a minimum of 26 scenarios that will exist within AHP. Among those 26 scenarios are nuclear power plant emergencies, pandemics, industrial hazards, school shootings, severe weather, bioterror, and natural disasters. Each scenario includes an easy to read checklist for taking appropriate action in the face of that emergency. Also addressed is how communication with the public will be handled.

“Now the goal is to have the plan ready for implementation by the participants by March 14, 2013, with each school rolling out the plan only when they are ready to,” she said, we are currently at the “mid-point of having a plan in place (but) we are on target for a mid-march finalization.”

She stated that some schools are further along in the implementation process than others, and that readiness could depend on factors such as training and other necessities outlined by school districts’ leadership. Status reports are being monitored to make sure that assistance, such as professional development, can be provided to any districts that need it.

Support and testimonials received in support of AHP have come from the PA State Police - Troop L (Reading), the District Attorney’s Office, the Berks County Department of Emergency Services, The Berks County Sheriffs, The Berks County Police Chiefs Associations, the Berks County Office of Mental Health / Developmental Disabilities, the American Red Cross, and more.

“This plan was embraced across the board with 100 percent commitment from the schools. The school districts showed no hesitation in supporting it,” said Hackman.

Funding for AHP, she said, came through the PA DOE’s Safe Schools Office at a cost of $2200 per participant. The total cost of implementation was named as being approximately $50,000.

In the Twin Valley School District, Superintendent Dr. Robert Pleis has put together a Security Team which is coordinating the Twin Valley School District implementation of AHP. The team consists of Student Services Director Dr. Mark Sakoian, Director of Facilities Keith Heckman, Twin Valley High School Assistant Principal Bill Clemments, Honey Brook Elementary Center Principal Jaime Whye, and Twin Valley Middle School Principal Dr. Gerald Catagnus.

“It is an excellent team that will work together over the next couple of months to put the AHP plan in place,” Pleis said. “In the meantime we are reiterating the importance of regular safety practices which are outlined in our existing safety plan to our staff and our students.”

Pleis said that AHP has been discussed at school board meetings, and he invites anyone to bring ideas and suggestions forward as the district’s leadership continues to take steps toward finalizing the local plan.

Just this past week Dr. Sakoian had a meeting with Chief Stolz and other local police chiefs to discuss concerns and things which can make the schools safer.

“Mark is doing a great job leading the charge in this effort,” said Pleis.

Future discussions with local fire, ambulance, and other necessary parties to take place, with some local first responders already being involved in previous AHP meetings.

For the staff and students, Sakoian sees one particular change forthcoming from AHP implementation – a change in the types of emergency drills which will be conducted. The exercises will go beyond fire drills and into drilling for other incidents. Fortunately the flexibility of AHP means that many of the drills will have overlapping actions which will be appear in numerous AHP scenarios – such as the proper way to evacuate the building – and the drills will be designed as to prevent them from becoming overwhelming or confusing.

“We are going to need to find a balance. We do not want the frequency of the drills to (keep students on edge), but we want to make sure that these exercises are taken seriously,” he said. “This way everyone will become familiar with what actions they would need to take should an emergency occur.”

Another change to Twin Valley School District’s plan will be the removal of coded terminology from announcements made over the PA system. Formerly a phrase such as “Mr. Green is in the building” would have been used to signal that there was trespasser on school property, yet with AHP the PA announcer will plainly state a situation and any additional messages.

When dealing with instances where first responders outside of Berks County are involved – as part of the Twin Valley School District does cross over into Chester County – Sakoian said that there is a Memorandum of Understanding in place with police in Chester County which ensures that continuity with the AHP plan is achieved in cross-county instances. Twin Valley is also involved in ongoing dialogue with other school districts about safety across county lines, with Sakoian and Pleis scheduled to attend a Safety Summit meeting at Owen J. Roberts later this month.

Chris Celmer is the Assistant Director of Operations for the BCIU Office of Business Services, and he has been very involved in planning and coordination of AHP efforts for the BCIU.

“We all must put a great deal of effort into the front end – into prevention and preparedness. A lot will be put into preforming the training drills and tabletop exercises needed to act upon an (AHP) response in case of an emergency.”

When asked about ongoing costs or maintenance needed for keeping AHP up to date, Celmer said that by its nature the AHP framework is very flexible and easy to implement and maintain.

“It will be reviewed during meetings of our Keeping Schools Safe school contacts and (internally updated) as needed.”

Celmer said that the recent Sandy Hook school shooting and other incidents like it provide a realization that planning for emergency response is an ongoing and collaborative effort.

“We all will continue to come together to support and further develop AHP in the future,” he said. “This has been a great collaborative effort between all partners and participants.”

To view details of the Standard Response Protocol online visit www.iluvuguys.org/srp.html

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