In a world where vulnerability in public spaces can seem as palpable and, unfortunately, as plausible as putting one foot in front of the other, Cheltenham Township’s first responders, in conjunction with the school district, held a mock emergency operation recently.
The point was for emergency teams to dive into a totally contrived situation that had many complex reality-based elements – in this case a horrific gas explosion at Elkins Park Elementary – allowing them to test responses and gain valuable training while generating added learning through a debrief and evaluation process.
There was a lot to take in. The scenario began with a report of an odor of gas experienced at the school while in session, prompting a fire company to be dispatched at 8:30 a.m. (It was actually on a Saturday, Oct. 24). An explosion occurred shortly after the first fire engine arrived, injuring the four firefighters on its crew. However, included in the scenario was a student fatality and 17 others hurt. The injured were transported to local hospitals. Once children were safely evacuated and accounted for, parents were directed to Cheltenham High School, where the school district had set up a reunification center for an orderly release.
Of course, the scene of the simulated tragedy was anything but orderly – with fire engines, police cars, ambulances and gurneys and a genuine air of peril and understandable confusion. The exercise unfolded as a roughly five-hour ordeal. It was no laughing matter, which was an important element of what made it valuable, said officials. A widespread observation was how seriously all the participants – from fire crews and school officials to distraught parents, harried staff and dazed students – played their parts, whether in their regular professional/community service roles or as actors portraying primarily students and parents.
“It went amazing well,” commented Emergency Management Coordinator Ken Hellendall, noting that the scene was the culmination of a year of planning. “We haven’t done a drill on that scale since 2008,” said Hellendall. He estimated that there were 25-30 local and county agencies involved in the action and probably as many in the evaluation phase.
Hellendall was especially impressed with how seriously students took the exercise. “All these kids have grown up watching school shootings on TV, so they take it very seriously. There was no screwing around – and that’s a lot to say for 60-70 teenagers involved.” (According to the district, there were 82 students who took part.)
There were some aspects of the exercise that came across as perhaps a little too “real,” such as some confusion over the basic command structure during the height of the drill. At one point, for example, the school district’s superintendent, Dr. Wagner Marseille, who was at the scene at Elkins Park, had difficulty communicating with the local fire company’s commander. The district’s communications director, Sue O’Grady, recalls, “with everyone stressed out it was hard to tell who the head person was . . . So, for a while, it was like everyone was acting, but no one really was talking with each other.” Even when the superintendent identified himself, EMS sector chief Jessica Barto remained “laser-focused on her ladder company getting into the school” and initially “didn’t give him the time of day,” O’Grady said. She added, “I think people really could not figure out where that command-and-control was coming from. Then we finally figured it out, but it took us a while to get there.”
Hellendall, too, noted that communications was an area to work on, including having a “unified command post” where information can flow in from all those involved and get integrated and then “back out to those who we work for – the public.”
One under-represented sector on the scene was the press, which in the real world would have converged on EP in droves. As it was, there was only one reporter present, but to provide what was considered at least a veneer of authenticity, even that lone scribbler was subject to some friendly harassment from officials trying to keep the fourth estate in its place, set back from the zone of emergency. On the communications side, the effort got bogged down, with only a bare-bones press release going out from Montgomery County Public Safety hours into the event and no direct engagement between officials and the press corps.
Afterward, though, there was a clear recognition that a live situation would have required functional communications with the press, likely including a press conference at the high school and probably some initial briefing near – but safely removed from – the disaster scene. Also included would have been a strong social media presence, said O’Grady, which was not a part of the simulation for fear of provoking misreadings that the calamity was real.
O’Grady said one of the major learnings – and surprises – was how hard it was “to synchronize communications with so many agencies” on the scene and then be able to shape the information and reverse the flow back out to the press and the public.
From the district’s standpoint, another surprise was how fast the response was by EMS rescuers, while the process of reuniting parents and caregivers with children back at the high school was slow, cumbersome and stressful. “I think we have a better understanding now of how much space we would need for the reunification center,” said O’Grady. Students arriving from EP who were mostly uninjured were led from the bus loading dock on the side of the high school and into the Little Theater. Parents and care givers were directed to Stretton Hall where they checked in, filled out forms and waited. When pick-up was possible, parents were walked by staff over to the cafeteria, where students had arrived, also accompanied by staff, from the Little Theater. It was estimated that the process for the 600 students at EP could take as much as 12 hours to complete.
One somber moment had the superintendent notifying a parent of the death of a child. With the emphasis on practice, a second take was done with the police chaplain offering the devastating news. Then a third try was made when the head guidance counselor provided the information, it all taking place in the principal’s conference room.
During another scene at the high school a non-English speaking parent came in with the name of his child on a piece of paper. When the guidance counselor realized the parent could not speak English, a translator ap on the counselor’s phone was activated, quickly bridging what seemed like an impossible gap in communications. In the debrief it was proposed that all counselors should have a comparable ap on their phones.
A further advantage of the disaster drill that could some day pay dividends was the simple opportunity for district staff to get to know the players in support positions from other agencies and municipalities. “Putting faces to names and roles,” as O’Grady put it, in the course of some future emergency situation when trust and ease of communication are paramount, could make a real difference. Another plus was gaining some familiarity with the culture of first responders. Educators, for example, were a bit disoriented when they first heard they were going to participate in a “hot-wash” until they learned what it was: a fast-paced debriefing process after an event.
What about the cost of the emergency simulation? Don’t forget the make-up to highlight injuries sustained, the lunches supplied by the district and, of course, the genuine debris to add the requisite credibility to any disaster scene . The biggest cost category, however, was overtime, said Hellendall who estimated that the township and the school district each budgeted about $10,000 and each came in substantially less than that. “If it saves one life down road, it’s a good investment,” remarked the township’s emergency management coordinator.