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Agencies test emergency plans

Members of law enforcement apprehend a suspect as part of a hostage scenario during the full-scale emergency management exercise held last Wednesday in Somerset (Photo by Tom Lindfors)1 / 3
A wounded hostge is evacuated during the full-scale emergency management exercise held last Wednesday in Somerset (Photo by Tom Lindfors)2 / 3
First responders provide first aid to a wounded hostage during the full-scale emergency management exercise held last Wednesday in Somerset (Photo by Tom Lindfors)3 / 3

In response to recent tragedies which have occurred at schools, the Somerset School District, area law enforcement and public safety agencies partnered to run a full-scale exercise Wednesday, Aug. 14.

"People were starting to ask a lot of questions in terms of our district and what we're doing and how we're keeping our kids safe," said Shannon Donnelly, director of Pupil Services and Emergency Management coordinator for the district. "We felt like it was a good time to take apart our plan to see if we are actually doing all the things we have down on paper and what additional things we could be doing to make sure students and staff feel safe coming to school every day."

Donnelly said it was a necessary exercise to test how things might operate in an emergency.

"These are uncomfortable things, unthinkable things, to talk about," she said. "But as hard as it is, as a staff, we understand the importance of having those discussions."

Professionals such as Deputy Greg Grass of the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office and Kristen Sailer, emergency management coordinator for St. Croix County, understand that the most important thing that can come out of tragedies such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown is education -- learning first, how to prevent, and second, how to react in a crisis situation.

Preparations for the day-long emergency management exercise began eight months earlier with a conversation between Grass and Donnelly.

"We devised a plan of activities we wanted to complete throughout the school year that would lead up to our emergency management exercise today," Donnelly said.

Those activities included training members of the building response teams using online tools developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Each building -- elementary school, middle school and high school -- have a designated response team composed of teachers and staff selected by the building's principal. The team includes guidance counselors and often teachers whose rooms occupy strategic locations (near entrances, exits, ends of hallways, etc.) within the building's floor plan.

Throughout the school year, team members lead staff and students through practice exercises, including lockdowns as well as question and answer sessions. Lockdowns and other exercises were introduced gradually allowing for grade appropriate instruction and dialogue among everyone involved, including communication with parents to keep them informed of what to expect and encouraging them to talk with their students about the exercises.

According to Donnelly, one of the most difficult aspects of the preparation was getting students to appreciate the necessity of emergency management and to buy into the seriousness of the exercises.

"Even though school safety's on everyone's mind, we took baby steps to gradually acclimate students to the plan and procedures," she said.

High school students who participated in Wednesday's exercise also were able to earn hours toward their community service requirement.

Starting in 2010, the State of Wisconsin mandated that all districts have a safety plan in place. That same year, St. Croix Emergency Support Services was formed. The county held its first full-scale exercise last year in Baldwin, said Coordinator Janet Smith.

"Baldwin was the first one St. Croix County has done in about 10 years," she said.

These exercises are voluntary and are funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to St. Croix Emergency Support Services, the goal of the exercise is to familiarize appropriate agencies with their roles and responsibilities in supporting a related school emergency incident and to develop a coordinated response that enhances and promotes quick problem solving. The exercise was devised and evaluated using the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) which provides a national standard for all exercises.

St. Croix County Sheriff's Office Captain Dan VanSomeren was responsible for designing this year's emergency scenario.

"Three years ago, we decided it was important to do multi-jurisdictional training. Last year in Baldwin, we had 23 agencies involved. This year we had more than 25 agencies working together," he said.

VanSomeren worked together with a design team of 21 people representing local municipalities, EMS, fire, local and county law enforcement, the state patrol, hospitals, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Army Reserve and the Somerset School District in creating this year's scenario.

The scenario, which was not disclosed beforehand to the majority of participants, involved more than 200 people fulfilling various roles over the course of a four-hour drama.

The simulated emergency involved five fictional shooters divided among two locations. Some 20 actors were injured and another 18 killed.

"This is the first time we actually did real-time training where we released people based on the actual time they arrived on the scene," VanSomeren said.

VanSomeren said the county's long term goal is to host an event in every district in the county. Planning is already underway for an event to be held in Hudson next summer. He expressed his gratitude to all the agencies who participated.

Six separate evaluators observed the performance of the various agencies including school staff and will submit their reviews to St. Croix Emergency Support Services. In addition, Support Services collected an evaluation form from everyone who participated in the exercise.

The information from these evaluations will be used to develop an after action report (AAR) and improvement plan (IP). The AAR will document effectiveness and overall exercise performance, include lessons learned, outline necessary corrective action recommendations and provide the basis for ongoing planning, training and future exercise needs.