USD 489, Hays emergency responders participate in crisis drill

HAYS, KS -- Nearly 60 members of school crisis teams from nine of 11 Hays USD 489 schools participated in a "tabletop" crisis drill this morning in meeting rooms at the Hadley Center. At the same time, 19 local emergency response agencies participated in the simulation at the Emergency Operations Center of the Ellis County Law Enforcement Center.

The scenario involved a tornado touching down within the city limits during a "typical" school day that caused extensive damage to the majority of schools. The severe weather also caused a train derailment and chemical spill, destroyed city hall and homes throughout the city, downed power and telephone lines, ignited fires and caused numerous other problems associated with severe weather.

The simulation was developed by a planning team that included Ellis County Emergency Management, USD 489, Kansas Homeland Security, Hays Police Department, Hays Fire Department, High Plains Mental Health Center and the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University. Docking Institute staff and volunteers directed the district simulation at the Hadley Center while Emergency Management directed the simulation at the EOC.

Mike Werth, Ellis County emergency manager, described today's drill as important on several levels.

"The more coordination problems we iron out during a drill, the better we can handle unforeseen problems that inevitably occur during a disaster," he said. "This training event not only benefits us in a disaster, it also knits together a community of professionals to better meet the everyday needs of the community."

For local schools, the tabletop drill is the culmination of nearly two years of safety activities, staff development and planning in conjunction with the Hays Emergency Action Response Team (HEART) program, funded through a U.S. Department of Education grant in 2003. The program's main purpose is to enhance safety, security, preparedness and recovery in the event of a school-based crisis.

USD 489 superintendent Fred Kaufman believes ongoing crisis planning and preparedness is essential.

"Living in western Kansas, we know that a weather-related crisis could happen at any time, and we regularly drill and practice for that type of event," he said. "In the wake of Columbine and 9-11, we also know that sometimes the unimaginable can happen to an individual school or an entire district. Thinking about how to handle those types of events is critical to ensure we keep our students safe."

School crisis teams received extensive training from a national expert in school crisis preparedness and response during the 2003-2004 school year. Each school has a dedicated crisis team that meets regularly to review and revise its crisis plan, develop training for staff, and conduct and assess drills and other activities. All members of the faculty and staff have an assigned role in the event of a crisis. These ongoing efforts help schools prepare to protect students and minimize trauma should the unimaginable ever occur.

Over the last two years, FHSU's Docking Institute of Public Affairs has coordinated and facilitated grant-related activities on behalf of the district.

"This scenario presented us with many problems," said Julie Zollinger, USD 489 school psychologist and Kennedy Middle School crisis team leader. "In a large-scale disaster, schools may have multiple issues with which to deal that require teamwork in order to manage them. The school crisis teams performed well, but the point of a drill is to help us realize what we need to improve. Now we'll go back to work tweaking our crisis plans and providing staff additional training."

Nex-Tech donated $1,000 in equipment, phone lines and installation services to the simulation, allowing for schools to communicate with one another as well as emergency responders without using the city's 911 system. High Plains Mental Health Center donated meeting room facilities at the Hadley Center, and the Hays Medical Center’s Northwest Kansas Hospital Bioterrorism Planning Committee provided the funds for refreshments.

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