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Preparing for the unthinkable crisis

Posted 8/26/14 (Tue)

Preparing for the unthinkable crisis

By Stephanie Allums
Farmer Staff Writer

It was a beautiful morning and a typical day for most students and staff at Watford City High School. The first bell just rang as students and teachers scurried to their classrooms for another day of classes.
The end of football season was nearing and the Wolves had been doing great this season with the help of their number one player, Billy Doe. Billy was a well-behaved kid with many friends, but there was only one thing taunting his high school football career - his low grades.
Because of his struggling grades, Billy was no longer eligible to finish out the season on the team.
His father tried to argue the arrangement, but had no luck. After dropping Billy off for another day of school, Mr. Doe asked to speak with the high school principal and football coach to discuss Billy playing the rest of the season.
The conversation quickly became heated. Mr. Doe pulled out a pistol and opened fire on the principal and coach. He then proceeded down that hallway and took shots at any of the staggering students left in the Watford City High School hallways. He was furious that his football-star son could no longer play football.
Responding agencies included the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office, the Watford City Police Department, the McKenzie County Ambulance, the Watford City Fire Department, and the local clergy.
As the police entered the building, they saw bloodied bodies laying along the hallways - some alive, some unconscious. They heard people desperately crying for help and gunshots were piercing their ears.
The smell of gunpowder sifted through the air, leading a path to the active shooter - the angry football father.
Watford City High School was on lockdown. It seemed unreal to some, but it was reality.
Fortunately, the scenerio that played out at Watford City High School wasn’t real. But it could have happened.
According to Wayne Beckman, with Wenck Associates & Consulting, most active shooters are done within seven minutes. And 70 percent of the time the shooter will take his own life when he completes his rampage.
“Things have changed so much in today’s world,” Beckman said. “We are working with a whole new game – a whole new animal.”
Local law enforcement agencies, emergency services and first responders joined together for an emergency crisis incident at Watford City High School on Wednesday, Aug. 20, around 5 p.m. This event was a practice scenario coordinated by Wenck Associates & Consulting, based out of Mandan, N.D.
The planned scenario emergency event was held to assess the school’s emergency preparedness plan, the response of law enforcement and other emergency services in the area. No one was harmed during this event.
Jerry Samuelson, McKenzie County Emergency manager, organized for this event over a year ago.
“The good thing about an emergency preparedness plan is that it can be used for tornados, fires, and shootings – it can be interchanged and applied to many different scenarios,” Samuelson said. “It’s important for all of our responders to be on the same page. We have so many new responders in the area.”
Ron Bergh and Beckman with Wenck explained the scenario to the participating law enforcement and first responders before it took place.
The scenario given is something that could happen in real life. It’s a situation that no one expects, but could escalate quickly.
One morning, the father comes into the school and asks to speak with the school principal and football coach about his son not being able to play anymore. After the discussion becomes heated, the father pulls out a pistol and takes fire on the principal and coach and then proceeds to make his way down the high school hallway – shooting at anyone in his path.
“Our objective is to put the established emergency plans into action so that we can give them instruction on where they need to be – all while having fun,” Bergh said.
Wenck representatives went over the standard chain of command that McKenzie County uses. Each participating agency had the chance to talk about what their department does. Typically, local police are the first ones on the scene of an incident. Then EMS show up, followed by the local fire department.
“The fire department is very crucial during an incident like this (the scenario given),” Beckman said. “If the police are the first ones on the scene and already inside of the building, then they will need someone to be blocking off the streets and getting people out of the area.”
After further discussion, the responding agencies felt comfortable with beginning the action and moving forward with the practice scenario.
Teachers and staff from McKenzie County School District No. 1, Alexander School District, and the McKenzie County Healthcare Systems were also involved with this crisis incident run-through, along with the responding agencies.
“As we all know, plans look pretty good on paper, but if you don’t practice them, then you’re always wondering if it will work,” Watford City High School Assistant Principal Randy Cranston said. “We have spent the last two years working on completing a plan just in case a crisis was to happen; what to do when it does and how to handle certain situations.”
In the past several years, school shootings have increased. It’s not just happening in colleges anymore. It’s occurring in high schools and even elementary schools, he pointed out.
“It’s ‘when’ it happens in North Dakota,” Beckman said. “It’s sad, but it’s true. It’s going to happen one day. The best way to be prepared is to practice. We are not here to test you. We are here to help you.”
“It’s important to have a feel and sense for what an actual situation would be like to be best prepared for a real world situation,” Superintendent Steve Holen said. “It’s an ongoing process and we continue to look for ways to be better prepared.”
A shooting or any other crisis situation can happen at any place, at any time. With the local school enrollment at an all-time high right now, safety is highly stressed, Holen said. A crisis situation could take place at a local business, a school, a roadway or any place where people gather.
The Wenck representatives pointed out that many of the law enforcement officers, firefighters, and first responders either have children or other family members attending school in Watford City, or even a spouse that works for the district. In a crisis situation, their ability to be a responder on the scene may be altered.
“No matter what role you’re playing here, you’re going to be hit hard and deep if your kids, family or friends are trapped inside while this event is happening. Are you going to be able to do your job?” Bergh asked the law enforcement and other first responders.
Law enforcement is trained to play the ‘What If’ game, Beckman said.
“There’s not a lot of time to play the ‘What If’ game in McKenzie County or Watford City,” he said. “Because there are already a lot of ‘What Ifs’ happening on a daily basis here.”
After roughly two hours of practicing the scenario of an angry football dad shooting people in Watford City High School, the responders, teachers and staff said they felt a lot more at ease and confident in handling a crisis situation.
“You realize how you need to react, stay calm, and do what’s best for the safety of our students,” Cranston said. “In the crisis case we practiced, we realized that it is a waiting game and it could be sitting in the dark for up to three hours until law enforcement has deemed the school safe. I feel we are definitely better prepared, but unfortunately - in all reality, there are so many situations that it may be impossible to be fully prepared for an incident like we practiced. I wish there was a foolproof plan.”
Watford City Elementary Principal Brad Foss said, “I was very pleased with the practice. We all have a much better awareness of all the details that go into being prepared. We will need to make some adjustments in our plan, but overall, we did a great job.”
When the drill began, many teachers scurried into their classrooms, locked the doors, turned out the lights and kept quiet for what seemed like eternity.
“For me, feeling my own anxiety in the amount of time we were waiting gave me a better understanding of how my kindergarten students may feel,” Debbie Hankins, Watford City Elementary teacher said. “I went into planning mode to prepare for such an incident.”
Fourth grade teacher, Heather Houser, said there were many positives that she gained from this experience.
“I took away from the practice a new mind-set of how to handle this if a situation arises,” Houser said. “It’s a situation that I hope never happens in Watford City, but with the reality of society, it could - and it’s better to be prepared for it instead of thinking it will never happen here.”
Overall, Cranston and Holen said it was great to see the EMS, fire department, hospital, emergency management, law enforcement and the school all working together.
“I am sure that all of the participating entities learned something to become even more knowledgeable in what they would need to do if a situation like this would occur,” Cranston said. “It’s nice to have a caring community that’s willing to get better for the safety of all of our citizens.”