The results of the reunification drill held at West Lincoln Middle School on April 5 continue to be evaluated and discussed by Lincoln County Schools staff as well as those Lincoln County agencies who were involved in the drill. This drill was phase two of an on-going Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Lincoln County Emergency Management four phase program of training for all first responders. Phase one was the active shooter drill which was held in 2017 at Lincolnton Middle School.
The reunification drill was intended as preparation for a natural disaster or shooter evacuation event. It was an exercise in emptying out a school, relocating the students and staff to a reunification site and once at the new location, doing an accountability check of the students and staff. The school system also tested out their transportation system – because on-site buses could potentially be sabotaged, school buses were brought in from other locations.
“West Lincoln Middle School was willing to volunteer to do this drill,” Lincoln County Schools associate superintendent Dr. Aaron Allen said. “We practiced this with real live kids and adults during the middle of the day to make sure that it would be as unstaged as possible.”
School staff, students and their parents knew the drill was going to happen but during the exercise, key people, such as principal Kristie Ballard were taken out of action at the last minute and other staff members had to take over.
As was the case with the active shooter drill, some flaws were discovered, reflected on and will be addressed as part of the county wide school emergency plan.
“For us it was good learning on how to do it in the future and nothing was a failure,” Allen said. “It was raining the day we did the drill so it was not the best day to do it but this is also our evacuation and reunification procedures for bad weather. It served as not just an active shooter drill.”
Evacuation of the students was done in approximately 40 minutes, according to Allen. West Lincoln Park, which is not the location where students would be moved if this was a real emergency at West Lincoln Middle, was used for the drill.
“We practiced how we manage 600 kids and 100 employees on the buses,” Allen said. “We also worked through how we communicate on the bus and between the buses. Once we were at the park, we reunified the kids with their parents. When we were done, we went back to school and the students had a chance to explore the SWAT vehicles and for the first responders to mix and interact with the kids and answer some questions.”
Only one person ended up not being accounted for, according to Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Trent Carpenter and that was a staff member. Children were not evacuated on the buses by classrooms. Once a bus filled, it left the school which meant in some instances, students were separated from their teachers.
“We saw some things that needed to be changed and that they need to work on but that’s why we do these exercises,” Carpenter said. “You don’t go into these things expecting to do 100 percent well. If you do that, you’ve not done your job because you should have things that need to be worked on.”
Getting students and staff off-site is not much of an issue Carpenter said. The bigger problem is if parents or guardians of the children try to make their way to the school instead of the designated reunification area.
“If the schools or emergency personnel notify parents of where they should go to pick up their children, that’s where they should go, not to the school,” he said. “In an emergency situation, messages are sent out and parents need to listen to those messages. I understand as a parent myself, if my child’s in that situation I want to be there as quick as I can but we have a job to do, EMS has a job to do, fire has a job to do and if parents come in, that’s going to keep us from doing our jobs because we’ve got to stop and handle them.”
The plan is to practice this same type of drill at other schools next year, according to Allen.
“In examining the results from this drill, we now know how many buses are going to be needed to evacuate per school,” he said. “We’re going to have to re-evaluate some of our off-campus sites because we know that those may not be big enough to support a fleet of buses. Some of high schools will take more than 25 buses and they take up a lot of space.”
Phase three in the training involves sheriff’s office investigative personnel and likely won’t involve drills.
“We’re going to sit down and write out a plan,” Carpenter said. “Writing a plan means basically, if this happens, how are we going to handle it, who do we need to call in, things like that. We can have it on paper so that when the time comes, we don’t have to think about it, it’s already there.”