Homeland Security tests school safety

BURLEY – The 9 a.m. 911 call from Burley High School Principal Carolyn Hondo made it clear that it was only a drill.

But the response from the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, the Burley Fire Department, the Cassia County Sheriff’s Office and Idaho State Police was extremely serious.

In order to test the school’s evacuation plan, the Cassia County emergency notification system and school safety procedures, school officials coordinated the drill with top state officials and law enforcement.

Burley Homeland Security
Homeland Security Training Specialist Natalie Lahti portrayed the out-of-control parent during a school safety drill Wednesday in Burley. Lahti wore makeup to simulate severe burns suffered in a chemistry lab emergency.

The simulated school emergency portrayed an irate parent who went on a rampage seeking out her student’s chemistry teacher. The furious parent, portrayed by a Homeland Security agent, entered the high school without authorization and confronted school officials.

Next, the parent forced her way into the school’s chemistry lab and became violent, even breaking equipment and spilling chemicals.

No students were in the building during the drill, but the exercise was designed to simulate a hazardous materials spill that could have exposed students to chemicals or burns.

When Hondo, in her sixth year as Burley’s principal, called 911, responders understood there was an unstable adult in the school and at least one burn victim waiting for them when they arrived.

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By 9:05 a.m., school officials issued an evacuation notice over the building’s loudspeakers and the first fire trucks and patrol cars arrived. Moments later, the Sheriff’s Office set up its Mobile Command trailer, Homeland Security officials arrived and medics and cops entered the school with a stretcher.

“It felt real,” Hondo said.

A crowd of reporters assembled, and were allowed to monitor the response from the parking lot about 200 feet from where emergency crews were setting up.

Lessons learned

The drill was important enough for Gov. Butch Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna to monitor the response and receive a briefing from top law enforcement officials.

Otter in Burley
Tom Luna, right, and Gov. Butch Otter, second from right, are briefed by Cassia County Sheriff Jay Heward, left.

On the positive side of things, Otter and law enforcement officials said they were pleased with the quick response time and the ability for multiple agencies to work together safely.

“We did great, we learned some things and we applied some new principles,” Otter said.

Officials also learned areas where they need to improve – which was one of the stated goals of the drill.

Cassia County Sheriff Jay Heward said there was a glitch in the telephone notification system that is designed to alert building staffers, students and parents about an emergency. Assistant Principal Levi Power made the call to send out notification. But some, including parent and public information officer Debbie Critchfield, said they did not get notified.

Additionally, during the debriefing, Otter asked Heward about the safe locations where students would be sent in the event of an evacuation.

Burley Drill
Law enforcement and medical personnel plan their response to a school safety drill in Burley.

“I myself know some of the places in the county where they plan to evacuate the schools to, but I don’t know all of them,” Heward said. “I think it’s important for each one of us at the Sheriff’s Office to learn where they are going to take our kids.”

Heward pledged to work with Cassia County Superintendent Gaylen Smyer to address the two issues.

Otter said the drill was important because authorities must be ready to respond to an unplanned emergency at any time.

“It gives us an opportunity for us to say if we find any problems in Burley we need to check that all over the state of Idaho,” Otter said.

At the end of the event, Luna said the program was one byproduct of a statewide safe schools task force first convened in 2007. Late last year, following the Sandy Hook school tragedy in Connecticut, state leaders partnered with law enforcement to ramp up the safe schools task force again.

“When a parent puts their child on a bus, when they drop them off at school, they have an expectation they are going to come home safe and that they are going to be safe while they are there,” Luna said. “ We take that charge very serious.”

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