An emergency training exercise carried out this week by a number of local agencies, in cooperation with the Pulaski County School System, proved to be a valuable learning experience for all involved.
“You keep learning and learning (in these situations),” said Tiger Robinson, Pulaski County Public Safety Director, after Wednesday’s exercises came to a close at Southwestern High School. “You can always fine-tune a plan, regardless of how good it is.”
Representatives with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department (including the department’s critical response team and a bomb-sniffing dog), Somerset-Pulaski County EMS, Kentucky State Police, and the Nancy Volunteer Fire Department attended Wednesday’s training exercises.
“We’re all here to work together,” said Acting EMS Chief Billy Duncan during Wednesday’s wrap-up meeting. “We want you to know we’re here.”
Joining them were teachers and other staff members and administrators with Pulaski schools, all of which hoped to learn a bit about how best to operate under emergency conditions (specifically in an active shooter situation and in carrying out reunification plans between students and parents).
A few students with SWHS JROTC, led by Sgt. Jeannie Cottle, volunteered as well.
“We’ve worked for eight years on revising and updating the plan,” said Wanda Johnson, safety coordinator with the school district. “This is just the next phase of that.”
Robinson said he and school officials had been in communication about a large-scale exercise for some time, but the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, which took place in Dec. 2012 in Connecticut and left 20 students and six school employees dead, brought the issue back to the forefront.
“That put us into high gear again,” said Robinson.
The exercises came a week after “table-top” sessions were held. The Wednesday, May 22 session featured first responders and school system staff members as well. The exercise was a talk-through of sorts, which included ways to prepare for this Wednesday’s functional exercise.
Wednesday’s session began with two active shooter exercises that took place in the SWHS gym and in the school’s library. Members of the sheriff’s department’s critical response team worked to gain entry into the library and gym, take down the shooter, and secure the areas.
The CRT is a unit made up of specially trained officers that respond to major events such as hostage situations and high risk warrant service.
“It’s so important for us (the sheriff’s department) to work with (school employees) and train with them,” said Pulaski County Sheriff Todd Wood.
Along with that, the sheriff’s department’s bomb-sniffing dog, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever named Ace, underwent his own exercise, with guidance from Chief Larry Wesley.
“He (Ace) did great,” said Wesley, after leading the dog down a hall of lockers in search for the mock explosive device.
Ace served a tour in Afghanistan with a patrol, and he was obtained by the sheriff’s department in September 2012.
“We’re not saying (an incident with explosives) will happen, but if you’ve got the tools to prevent it, you need to use them,” said Wesley.
The bomb exercise comes after the April 15 incident at the Boston Marathon, during which two explosive devices placed in the spectator area of the famous event were triggered, leaving three people dead and more than 260 people injured. Some of those injuries were critical and included amputated limbs.
“People do mean things to other people,” said Wesley. “And using explosives is one of them.”
Somerset-Pulaski County EMS worked to triage those people who volunteered as injured victims in the exercise — including Pulaski County Sheriff’s Deputy Kenny Upchurch, who was “hit” in the arm by a bullet during the shooter exercise in the SWHS gym.
“ ... I really learned a lot,” Upchurch said after the exercise.
Teachers and school system employees — specifically those designated as emergency response team members for their respective schools — took part in the evacuation and student-parent reunification exercises.
“I think they caught a little bit of a taste of adrenaline you get when something like this happens,” said Johnson, the safety coordinator for Pulaski schools. “We wanted to practice our emergency response plan ... you can’t just sit it on the shelf and not use it.”
The exercise as a whole was deemed a success, especially because it helped point out areas of needed improvement in the school system’s emergency plans.
“We want to look for ways to improve without doing on-the-job training,” said Robinson, who noted the exercises are necessary for all emergency responders — long-term veterans and new personnel. “ ... If you think you know it all and you’ve trained all you can, it’s time to quit because you’re going to get hurt or get somebody else hurt.”