Officials hope for the best, prepare for the worst
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Teachers at Escambia County Middle School have become accustomed to participating in various learning programs over the years. The program in which they participated July 13 was a horse of a different color, though.
More than 120 school administrators, faculty and staff from across the Atmore feeder pattern — ECMS, Escambia County High, Huxford Elementary and Rachel Patterson Elementary — took part in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2018 Eagle Excellence FSE, a training scenario under which an intruder invades the school and begins shooting anyone with whom he comes into contact.
“This exercise is very important,” Escambia County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mike Lambert said prior to the start of the drill. “We hope and pray we never have to use anything such as this, but it’s good to know that we’re prepared. We will be able to identify our strengths and weaknesses here today … and figure out what needs to be done to make our school system safer for our kids and our employees.”
Superintendent of Education John Knott echoed those sentiments.
“One of the primary responsibilities we have is the safety of our students and our staff,” he said before things got started. “We hope we can identify the areas we have down pat … but we also expect to find areas in which we have needs, some weak areas and some holes where we need to go back and re-evaluate what we’re doing.”
Fourteen federal, state and local public agencies and private organizations took part in the exercise, including police and fire departments in Atmore and Poarch; the county sheriff’s office, school system and Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Coastal Alabama Community College; Atmore Ambulance Service, ASAP EMS, Atmore Community Hospital and MedStar EMS, which landed a helicopter-borne medical crew on school grounds.
“We want to know that we can work together as a team,” Lambert said.
Things started happening fast once the pre-drill calm was shattered by shotgun blasts within the school halls.
Emergency dispatchers could be heard through speakers explaining the situation and dispatching all available units and personnel to the school.
Escambia County School Assistant Superintendent Beth Drew explained that the most likely occurrence if such a tragedy were to occur would be for ECMS Principal Debbie Bolden to notify Drew or another Central Office official. That would trigger a message to all school administrators, staff and teachers ordering the immediate lockdown of all the county’s public schools.
“Everybody will be locked down in one call,” Drew said. “Even if it’s at this school, we still feel it’s important to lock down all of them, even in East Brewton. If a classroom teacher sees [the message], he or she knows to lock down their room, even if it’s not at their school.”
A second phone message would be automatically sent to parents of all students in the feeder pattern whose phone numbers are on file, notifying them of the site at which children would be taken, and a third call would go out to school bus drivers, bus shop foremen and Director of Transportation Forrest Jones.
During the recent training exercise, Drew’s computer made 2,271 calls, of which only 497 were answered by a human.
“That’s something we’ve got to check and see if the phone numbers we have are still good,” the assistant superintendent said.
As school officials, three board of education members (Willie Grissett, Danny Benjamin and Mike Edwards), Mayor Jim Staff, media and others watched the exercise unfold on closed circuit television, law enforcement officers arrived and began the search for the shooter. Emergency medical personnel moved down the school halls in the wake of officers to assess and evacuate the injured.
When the shooter had been neutralized and the exercise concluded, Knott admitted that he was awed by the reaction of all concerned.
“I’m impressed, I really am,” he said. “This is going to give us the opportunity to maybe critique some of the procedures we have in place, maybe make some of them better. I think we got a lot of good out of this.”
Drew noted that she and ECSO Deputy Jeff Weaver, who serves as School Resource Officer for the schools in the Atmore feeder pattern, have been planning the active shooter drill for a year and half.
“Officer Weaver and I started talking about it about 18 months ago,” she said. “We got the OK from Mr. Knott, so we started talking in depth about it. Since the end of February or the first of March, we’ve been meeting every other week with these different agencies.”
The school superintendent said his second-in-command and the deputy should get the credit for the drill’s success, and for identifying in advance some of the system’s weak points.
“They are the ones that deserve credit for putting this together,” he praised. “I can’t say enough about Officer Weaver. He came to me early on last year and suggested it. He has put in thousands of hours since then, and Mrs. Drew has put in thousands of hours. We’ve learned and helped develop some of our systems even better throughout the planning for this.”
News photo by Don Fletcher