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Mock emergency tests school district’s response

An eighth-grader took to the school bus radio to report a crash to the district dispatcher and calmly reported details.

“There’s been a crash. The driver is unconscious. Kids are standing around,” she reported.

It was all part of an emergency preparedness drill on a day Talawanda Schools was not in session designed to test the district’s response and protocols for accounting for every student in an emergency.

The simulation was coordinated by Katharine Piaskowy, from the Butler County Educational Services Center.

On hand were district administrators, school resource officers, first responders, law enforcement, a host of high school and middle school students, and McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital staff.

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Piaskowy kicked off the drill by telling everyone they should do whatever they would be doing at 3 p.m. on a Friday and told the students if they would normally text or e-mail about such an emergency to do so but to include the words, “This is an exercise.”

“We don’t want people overhearing a bus crash on a day school is closed and kids strewn all over Oxford Reily Road,” she said of the Aug. 31 drill.

The whole exercise took place on Talawanda Middle School grounds.

There were some wrinkles Piaskowy threw at staff members to make the event more realistic.

“We want to test the school’s ability to account for all students,” she said. “This is designed to be chaotic. You guys have the least amount of work to do, but are the most important.”

She chose several students to walk away from the scene, possibly dazed. A few others were designated to “walk home” because they lived near the crash site. She chose a few others to be so traumatized by the mock crash that they would refuse to get on a back-up bus sent to continue the route.

In the end, a debrief was held to discuss what was learned during the drill.

In the rush of things happening with school personnel and law enforcement trying to account for all the students and locate those who walked away, the unconscious bus driver was overlooked and not taken to the hospital set up in the school’s media center.

That was considered a minor issue, however, since no true EMS response had been arranged and it was felt medics would have dealt with he while everything else was going on.

The Petermann Transportation dispatcher praised the response of the eighth grader who took over the radio as did everyone else, but it was pointed out that she was not asked for the single most important piece of information.

“If you call, give us the bus number because that tells us within a quarter-mile where it is because we know the route and where it should be at a certain time,” said Petermann Safety Director Keith Harms.

A student pointed out that bus evacuation drills are regularly done so students know how to get out of a bus quickly in an emergency. Those drills, however, are only done in the mornings and the student noted there are some who get rides to school in the mornings but ride the buses home in the afternoon and, therefore, do not experience those drills. She also noted that same inexperience can come into play on field trips for students who do not ride the bus to and from school.

A bigger problem arose when trying to use existing bus lists to account for students’ whereabouts when the lists conflicted. Piaskowy had added a couple phony names to one list as added chaos and that doubled when a couple extra students showed up for the exercise and were not listed. That gave them two names for people who did not exist and another two people who were not on the lists.

Superintendent Ed Theroux said the administration would look at that issue and make the lists available electronically so they can use up-to-date bus lists daily, including students riding a different bus for one day for any reason.

Students were encouraged to text or e-mail parents to tell them about the “crash” but telling them to add, “This is an exercise,” to simulate what would happen in a real emergency. They were also encouraged to tell parents to call the school office as they likely would with word of an emergency.

Parents were notified to come to the school for “reunification” with their children. One parent on hand for the exercise said that word is confusing.

“Some would understand, some would not. It should be something simple,” she said.

After the debrief, Theroux acknowledged that the event was not truly over. There is now work to do on the district administration level to improve communications and protocols in case of a real emergency, he said.

“We did a really good job with the drill today. The policies and procedures worked well, but the debriefing recognized we need to tweak some areas,” Theroux said. “The drill was a success. It was a great opportunity to work with the staff, the police department, the fire department, Petermann, the (School Resource Officers) and parents to test our processes.”

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