Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Elyria – Over 100 people gathered at a conference Wednesday morning at the Spitzer Center in Elyria. Their goal: Making the schools in Lorain County safe.

In attendance were Officials representing Fire and Police Departments as well as schools and Health Departments from throughout Lorain County.

Today’s initiative is part of a program that started in 1999 by then Lorain County Prosecutor Greg White. Today, Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said that his office is proud to continue the program and to work with many other agencies in making the area schools safer for students and staff. “What we are trying to accomplish is to update the school response plans, to make them aware of new and more inventive ways to develop their plans so that they stay active, that they remain realistic with what they are dealing with and that they learn from other people who have had types of incidents that we are trying to prevent here.”

Will said that with schools having so much on their plate, sometimes security issues get pushed to the back burner. “I think that the schools have so many things to deal with – with testing and meeting projective goals that they prioritize things and this isn’t the highest priority. It’s normal in any type of response plan or any type of planning that you have to continually update your training and that is why we are trying to do this on a yearly basis and to perform a reassessment of all the school facilities.”

Robert Watson left his nearly 60 degree weather in South Carolina to come to Lorain County, and our 15 degree weather, to participate in the seminar. Watson was just one of the speakers today discussing new ways emergency personnel can work together in cases of large scale incidents at schools. “Collaboration is critically important, getting some uniformity and consistency in the organization of the school plans. I know from experience that many school plans have a tendency, many times, to have their emergency procedure section mixed in with routine safety procedures, mixed in with curriculum and other information.”

Watson’s directive was to try and give an organizational pattern that would help to bring the emergency procedures to the forefront and to make the procedures user friendly. One of Watson’s main points was to implement a policy where you “say what you mean” when there is a problem in a school building. “A lot of schools when faced with a bomb threat would use the code “Mr. Blast” over the speaker system or they would have a code if there is an intruder in the building. This is just not effective because you have substitute teachers who may not know the code or regular teachers who may forget the codes. We strongly suggest that the best thing to do is just “say what you mean” when alerting the staff and students to something. The only code that I would say works is to announce “we are going to our extended evacuation area” and you would use that in a case of a bomb threat. Too many times now with everyone having a cell phone if the school announces bomb threats then you have kids calling their parents and their instinct is to run to the school and pick up their kids, which is not necessary in most cases. So if they use extended evacuation area, which is just a location further then the 200 to 300 yard evacuation area for say a fire, then everyone knows what to do but not necessarily what the threat is to the building. It could be that there is a gas leak or a partial collapse of the building or it could be a bomb threat. The main goal is not to necessarily tell the students what is specially wrong but to let them know that they have to leave the building and move to the extended evacuation area.”

Watson said that we have come a long way since the days of departments working independently, now he sees more collaboration and that he says goes a long way when you are handed a large scale incident. “There’s a lot more uniformity, standardization and consistency in the procedures and collaboration between the schools, businesses and emergency services. It is much better then it use to be.”
Tom Kelley, Director of Lorain County Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security, said that the program is important because after time passes, some people forget the security plans. “It’s an out of site, out of mind type of situation. People tend to put it off because they have more pressing things to do and we certainly understand that, it happens in our office too. However, with the things that have been happening in the country today – what have we had, 5 school shootings this month already in the United States? Emergency planning, along with academics, should be equal.”

Kelley said that although many schools have let their emergency planning slip, some have kept up to date. “There have been a few school systems that have been right on the ball keeping updated on a regular basis. As a matter of fact one of them contacted our office and we have table top exercises planned for the near future.”

Assessing the schools
Kelley said a team of officials went out and assessed all of the schools in Lorain County in 1999. The assessment consisted of everything from looking over their emergency plans, interviewing teachers, students and parents. “We would literally feel circuit breaker panels to see if they were overloaded, touched panic bars, checked fire extinguishers – we checked everything to see if the school was safe, then we made our recommendations.” The school assessments will happen again later this year, however the checklist will have more of a focus on emergency planning. “This time we will focus on emergency plans, making sure that they are update – all of the contact names and numbers are current.”

Today’s event was a catalyst to bring agencies together and to shine a spotlight in the issues of emergency planning within schools. Prosecutor Will said that sometimes that is all that is needed to get the ball rolling. “I think if you give someone a forum to come to where they can get information and exchange information, they can learn and develop their techniques to move forward with their plan. I think that they will respond to that, clearly there is always a limited amount of time and limited number of people they can send but we try to bring in as many partners as possible and I think that is to our advantage here in Lorain County and I think that we are probably ahead of the curve here in Lorain County.”

This event was a collaborative effort of the following organizations: Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office, Lorain County Sheriff’s Office, Lorain County Chief’s Law Enforcement Officers Association, Lorain County General Health District, Ohio State Highway Patrol Elyria Post 47, Lorain County Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, United Way of Greater Lorain County, Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County, Catholic Charities Community Services Lorain County, Lorain County Mental Health Board, Lorain County Community College

To see more photos from the conference: CLICK HERE


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