Officials work on tri-district emergency-response plan
Steamboat Springs — Monday’s Virginia Tech shooting shocked the nation as people turned on their televisions to images of students fleeing the Blacksburg, Va., campus and law enforcement officers carrying students out of a building after Seung-Hui Cho took the lives of 32 of his fellow students and teachers and then his own.
In the days that followed the massacre – the deadliest in modern U.S. history – national, state and local officials were forced to once again look at the policies in place to keep students safe.
In Routt County, law enforcement officers and school officials are bracing for a future in which the question of school safety is constantly arising, especially after the Columbine High School shooting of 1999 and the more recent shooting at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey.
“Every time something like this happens, people start rethinking what’s the right thing to do,” said Sheriff Gary Wall. “We’re constantly changing these things.”
For Routt County Office of Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale, one important component of keeping all Routt County’s schools safe is having a unified emergency response plan that would allow each school district to have an umbrella policy in place to turn to in case of any emergency, not just school shootings.
While such a plan does not currently exist, Vale and other law enforcement officers and school officials in the Hayden, South Routt and Steamboat Springs school districts, as well as North Routt and Colorado Mountain College officials, are working toward funding and developing one in the near future.
“Right now, we have some small, individual plans in place for all the schools, and it isn’t a question of them being prepared,” Vale said. “It’s a question of trying to get them to think much broader and deeper.”
Such a plan would include guidelines for centralizing response, planning and training inside the schools and training law enforcement officers and other personnel, Vale said.
Officials are working to secure a grant that would allow the county to assess each school district to facilitate discussions in creating such a plan, Vale said.
“It comes down to time and money,” he said. “We are a small, rural community, but togetherness is crucial.”
Vale said in light of the recent shootings, some concerned parents, staff and community members are racking their brains wondering if the schools they send their children to every day are prepared to handle an “active shooter incident,” or a school shooting.
“It’s easier to ask that question, than to answer that question” he said. “Everyone’s trying to think what it would look like if something like (the Virginia Tech shooting) happened in our small, rural community.”
One advantage to living in a small, rural community is that emergency calls are only handled by the Routt County Communications center, instead of, as on the Front Range or other larger areas, dispatched through several centers.
On the other hand, one challenge the community would face in an emergency situation is the capacity of available law enforcement officers to respond to the incident.
“You can never say you’re 100 percent prepared to handle everything,” Steamboat Springs Public Safety Director J.D. Hays said. “Look at the Bailey shooting – the whole world came to support them because they had the availability of officers from Denver. We don’t have that. What we have here is what we have : because we are isolated.”
Hays said he is supportive of a unifying county emergency response plan to incorporate the county’s schools.
“I look forward to the day that happens,” he said.
Lane Malone, the Steamboat Springs district grant writer, and Superintendent Donna Howell have been very involved in developing a countywide emergency response plan.
“I think it’s safe to say that all three (Routt County school) districts on an ongoing basis are looking at the policies and procedures they have in place, but with the events in Bailey, Pennsylvania and now Virginia, those discussions warrant a more focused attention,” she said.
Malone said one benefit to creating a tri-district plan is knowing exactly what other school districts would do in an emergency situation and how other districts could best help.
“For years, it was not unreasonable to think you’d call 911 if there was an emergency, and they’d come, but it’s become much more complex,” she said. “It’s a matter of connecting the dots to say we know what we’d do, and we know what they’d do.”
Another advantage to having a centralized plan would be to allow other school districts to offer as much support as possible to another that may be facing an emergency situation, Howell said.
“When we’ve had to deal with tragedies in the past, we’ve tapped into our neighboring districts for support,” she said. “In any type of crisis, we help each other.”
“It’s critical to have something like this in place because, even though we’re geographically separate, we are socially and economically intertwined,” she said. “Something of that magnitude would affect all of us.”
All Routt County schools have safety procedures in place to guide students, teachers and staff through anything from a fire or hazardous spill to a shooting, law enforcement officials said.
Each district has the option to handle preparedness in its own way, which in Steamboat Springs includes ongoing lockdown training at Soda Creek Elementary School and Steamboat Springs High School, the two schools in the city’s jurisdiction. Lockdowns keep students and staff inside a building during an emergency instead of evacuating the students.
Steamboat Springs police Capt. Joel Rae said the ongoing lockdown trainings are beneficial for students, staff and law enforcement because it allows for an ongoing practice for a real emergency situation.
“You can never have enough people involved in trainings. : It’s important to train together,” he said. “I’m just as passionate about school safety as I am about keeping alcohol out of our kids’ hands. As a parent and the captain of the police department, we’ll continue to train because you’ve got to be prepared for the worst. That’s the bottom line.”
Wall said it’s important for law enforcement officers and school officials to keep details of emergency response plans out of the public’s eye so as to not sacrifice the safety of the students and staff by revealing too much.
“These things that happen at schools get big press, but these types of things can happen anywhere – a school, a restaurant, anywhere,” he said. “We’ve always been concerned that it can happen any place, anytime, anywhere.”
Wall said he has not reviewed the different safety plans in place for the schools in North Routt County, South Routt County and Hayden, although it is something he plans to do.
“It’s important to me to sit down with everyone involved,” he said.
Wall also said he did not know if he would participate in lockdown trainings at Strawberry Park elementary and middle schools.
Vale said it is important for community members to be concerned about the possibility of emergency situations occuring in Routt County but that becoming obsessed isn’t productive.
“Can something like this happen here? Absolutely. But 40,000 people die in car accidents every day, and we still drive,” he said. “We’ll stay cooperative, and we’ll get through it.”
-To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234
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