BRATTLEBORO -- In the days following the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, town officials met to talk about whether Brattleboro was prepared to deal with a similar crisis.
Living in the shadow of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, Brattleboro school administrators were familiar with emergency evacuation drills and disaster preparedness. And with an interstate and major train line both running through town, emergency responders have both trained for and responded to hazardous spills, large accidents and other large scale emergencies. But in the room that day, with the news still fresh in their minds that 20 children and six staff members were shot dead inside the school in Newtown, Brattleboro officials realized they needed to do more.
Since that day school staff members, emergency responders and town officials have been meeting twice a month to develop a School Crisis Emergency Response Plan, which was finalized earlier this month and presented to the Selectboard at Tuesday night's meeting.
"In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School we began to ask ourselves if this community was prepared in the event of a tragedy of that type," interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said. "That began a process of looking inward and then eventually looking outward to many of our partners in the development of a plan that the town would use in conjunction with the school district for how we would respond.
The new plan lays out the specific roles that emergency responders and school staff will be expected to follow in the event of a major crisis, and it establishes protocol for treating and transporting victims and securing the buildings before, during and after a crisis. It also lays out the chain of command and the communication network that should be set up to get families and the community the most accurate and timely information available.
Moreland said the fire and police departments, as well as all other town departments developed the plan, working closely with the town school district.
Brattleboro Central Dispatch Supervisor Wayne Stires, The American Red Cross, Rescue Inc., and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital also took part in the planning and development of the plan.
"It's been a real process of getting to know each other, and recognizing that our role is not to be prescriptive as to what you should do," Moreland said. "But it's important that we understand what you are going to do and you understand what each of our departments is going to do."
Brattleboro Assistant Fire Chief Peter Lynch spearheaded the work, and Moreland, and a number of other town officials at Tuesday night's meeting, recognized the hours of work he put in to complete the plan.
Lynch said early on in the process everyone within town government and the school district realized that a plan was needed to better prepare the town for a large scale crisis within one of the school buildings. And while the town was able to build on many of its existing policies and trainings, it quickly became apparent that Brattleboro would be forced to come up with new plans for a better coordinated response.
"There have been a lot of conversations, some of which have been very uncomfortable, as the subject of dealing with a school crisis can be sensitive and uncomfortable," Lynch said. "One of the biggest problems we found in writing this plan, was that there really is no template we could grab a hold of and use to develop our plan, which is one of the reasons why we have taken almost two years to put together a plan that works for the town of Brattleboro."
One of the greatest challenges, Lynch said, was coming up with a realistic plan for reuniting parents with their children in the midst of a crisis. And he said that while the plan will continue to evolve and change, the process of developing the plan will reap benefits even if it is never used.
"While the plan itself is terribly important, and it is very comprehensive, I don't think we should at all minimize the importance of all of the groups' representatives sitting at a table, every other week, for almost two years," Lynch said. "We talked about not only how we respond to school emergencies, but also how we would work together to make sure that before, during and after an emergency we did the appropriate things for the community itself."
Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley also recognized the important work that was achieved during the process.
Stahley said the school district has been addressing the region-wide safety plan for years, having been operating schools within the Vermont Yankee Emergency Evacuation Zone, and many of the exercises from that plan made their way in to the new School Crisis Emergency Response Plan.
Stahley said every school has a crisis team in place made up of the principal, nurse, counselors and other staff who understand their roles in the event of a crisis.
And Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi said the plan will play a crucial role in the town's ever-evolving training regime.
"God forbid if something would happen in one of our schools," Bucossi said. "We train on fire, we train on rescue, we train on bank robberies, we train on medical calls. We don't want to be standing in the middle of the street looking at each other, saying, ‘What's next?' We now feel very comfortable that we've got a very sold base to work from to handle an emergency in one of our schools. We've come a long way with this."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.