Planning for the Worst
Wasco County Crisis Team prepares for school emergencies
By Kathy Ursprung
Flip books hang by the doors of school rooms in Wasco County—a physical reminder of the partnership between emergency response and education organizations designed to keep school children and employees safe in a crisis.
The flip book doesn’t include a tab for oil train derailment, but when Mosier Community School was in the zone of just such an event in 2016, Crisis Team protocols played a vital role. Crisis Team organizations had to react fast.
“We had the Center for Living Crisis Response Team ready to move on that one,” says Candy Armstrong, superintendent of North Wasco County School District. “We had law enforcement. We had a plan for parent reunification.
“It happened very quickly, and I really believe it went as well as it went because of all the work we’ve been doing the last couple of years getting to know each other.”
Other than trains, the books list protocols for just about any emergency imaginable, from fires and earthquakes to reporting child abuse and fights, to every community’s worst nightmares: bombs and active shootings.
These efforts have been underway for years, yet few people know much about them. When Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill attended local town hall meetings after the Parkland, Florida, mass casualties, he was surprised to learn almost no one knew anything about these efforts.
“We just want people to know that there is an active group—a proactive, interagency group—doing things to make sure school safety is one of our top priorities,” Lane says.
In one form or another, these efforts stretch back to at least 2010 for North Wasco, when Trudy Townsend worked on the Safe Schools Healthy Students initiative with the district.
“What really was a watershed moment was December 2012,” Candy says.
That’s when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut and the Clackamas Town Center shooting in Oregon happened within days of each other.
“All of a sudden, everything ramped up,” Candy says.
The current Wasco County Crisis Team started to take shape around 2014 under the coordination of Kristy Beachamp, former Wasco County Emergency Services director.
“We started out with law enforcement response,” Lane says. “We needed a common protocol in all schools throughout the county.”
Today, the team includes representatives from all Wasco County public schools, St. Mary’s Academy and Columbia Gorge Community College; city, county and state police; Wasco County Emergency Management; Mid- Columbia Fire & Rescue; Mid-Columbia Medical Center; North Central Public Health; and Mid-Columbia Center for Living. All of these groups work to coordinate activities so when a crisis hits, they know immediately what to do and the role their group plays in response.
Knowing and trusting the other Crisis Team members is also important, says Rachel Crowder of Mid-Columbia Medical Center.
“If we have an incident, we all know each other and we’re not exchanging cards the day of the event,” Rachel says.
The group also reaches out to surrounding counties where jurisdictions often overlap.
“We needed a common language and that came from this group,” says Cindy Miller of North Wasco, who provides group coordination and documentation.
In developing that common language and the protocols for various incidents, the crisis team reached out to a variety of experts. For example, they drew from the resources of the I Love U Guys Foundation—an organization named after the last text message of a victim in Colorado’s 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis.
“They have tons of free material to help us build our standard response protocols,” Lane says.
That is particularly true for the vital plan to ensure students are reunited with their parents or guardians after a crisis.
The team also looked to schools involved in shootings, including Reynolds School District in Gresham. The Douglas County sheriff also gave a presentation on the Umpqua Community College shooting.
Once the common language and protocols were figured out, law enforcement and fire personnel went around to all the schools and gave presentations.
A tabletop exercise held at the Fort Dalles Readiness Center helped the group walk through the procedures. It drew local participation and FBI involvement.
Schools are now required to have regular drills. When they do, law enforcement agencies are on hand as they would be in a real crisis.
“For my school, as small as we are, I need every person at this table,” says Kim Koch, principal at St. Mary’s Academy. “I don’t have enough people at my facility to take care of all that. I think we’ve worked very hard in being able to work through the steps to keep students and schools safe.”
Anyone who may have information about a school safety threat or potential act of violence is encouraged to report it anonymously to the SafeOregon tip line at (844) 472-3367, or go to safeoregon.com for more ways to report.
A Firsthand Perspective on Crisis
When Patrick Ashmore left a career at the Oregon State Police to become The Dalles’ police chief, he brought with him a lot of firsthand knowledge about mass casualty incidents.
He was on hand in the aftermath of both the Reynolds High School shooting in 2014 and the Umpqua Community College shooting in 2015.
“It only takes five minutes, give or take, and it’s usually over,” Patrick says.
Emergency responders usually only become involved in the aftermath. “What was really apparent to me was how critical it is to have plans so teachers, administrators and all the agencies know what to expect, know who to answer to,” Patrick says.
In that regard, Wasco County schools are in good shape, he says.
“We’re way ahead of the average community,” Patrick says. “Not just by size, just in general. Any time we have an active shooter incident, it amplifies concerns that much more. Here, we’re way ahead of the game and on track with the issues and challenges.”
Crisis team training exercises help prepare the responders.
“By the time they’re trained up, everybody knows exactly what their role is,” Patrick says.
The aftermath of a mass casualty can be a frustrating time for family and friends, Patrick says, because state law often slows the flow of information.
It is vital to have school personnel prepared not only for the incident but for the aftermath.
“Those parents are going to come to the teacher, the administrator,” he says. “They’re not going to come to me.”
Patrick expresses confidence in the abilities of educators in crisis situations. “The common thread with educators is they step up when they need to step up,” he says. “There will be a lot of unsung heroes in the midst of a mass casualty. We won’t know who they are until the day it comes, heaven forbid.”