Becky Secrest: Helping schools stay safe for 10 years

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    PREPARED — Oxford County EMA School Planner Becky Secrest, left, and EMA Director Allyson Hill study a school Emergency Operations Plan. (Photo by A.M. Sheehan)

    COUNTY — Becky Secrest may have one of the most important jobs in the county.

    Keeping its children safe while they are in school.

    The 65-year-old Greenwood resident is the county Emergency Management Agency (EMA) School Planner.

    Although it may sound innocuous, her role is to work with schools to train and implement plans for myriad threats that could arise. She currently works with more than 30 public schools, and a number of private and parochial schools, developing Emergency Management Plans (EMP).

    Training for schools is not mandated, the schools (public or private) have to invite her in. But it is well worth their time.  And it costs the schools nothing.

    Secrest has been trained by Homeland Security in incident command and has been helping county schools stay safe for 10 years.

    And yet, not all the schools in the county take advantage of her expertise. Those that do have benefited from detailed EMPs, bullet point teacher guides, table top exercise, school and district staff training, updated contact lists, coordination with first responders, after action reviews and improvement plans and continuous updating as new methods or threats evolve.

    Threats might include a fire, active shooter, disgruntled parent, out of control child as well as anything happening outside the school from which students need to be protected.

    She will help integrate law enforcement and school EMPs so all are on the same page and know what the other will be doing in an emergency. She will update plans to include new state and federal Department of Education requirements. And to stress a point — it is all free … and done at the school according to the school’s schedule.

    Free?

    So how can all this be free? Because it is funded by an Emergency Management Performance Grant. When the position was created it was funded through a Homeland Security Grant. Then EMA Director Allyson Hill pursued funding through the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG), which is a 50 percent matching grant.

    A school flipchart

    “The match was provided through volunteer time in the county that I tracked and submitted with reimbursement requests,” Hill explains, “therefore no county funds were expended for her services.”

    “As of two years ago, she was integrated into our county budget, and now 50 percent of her contractual costs are paid for with county funds and 50 percent are covered by EMPG, just like all costs for personnel and operations in our office.”

    Tabletop

    One of the key elements of keeping schools safe, says Secrest, are the tabletop exercises.

    Although the title may conjure up visions of school models and little play figures similar to military tabletop exercises, it is more like a mental and verbal chess game.

    Secrest explains how it works.

    “At this time, this is happening … where would you go? What would you be doing? How would you respond?”

    She notes that she tries to get participants, especially school personnel, out of their comfort zone when asking those questions.

    So, for example, instead of a teacher being in a classroom, suppose they were in the bathroom or the teacher’s lounge and their students were at recess … .

    “I am working with schools,” says Secrest, “to practice during unexpected, inopportune, unordinary times.”

    It is important, Secrest says, to make sure all school staff are “at the table” including teachers, coaches, cafeteria workers, Ed Techs, office personnel, etc. And on the other side, fire, police and EMS first responders.

    “Having first responders at the table,” explains Secrest, puts staff at ease. They are feeling someone else is looking out for them.”

    There are no predetermined solutions to the various scenarios presented during a tabletop exercise. Varying responses and even disagreements are expected. In fact, situation updates, written material and resources are the basis for discussion.

    “Every time, no matter how many times you’ve done it, you always think of something new,” emphasizes Hill. And EOPs evolve as things change, they concur.

    “One of the purposes of tabletop is to help staff understand the risks and the need for training and drills,” says Hill.

    A sample scenario might be as follows:

    10 a.m. Most students are in classrooms but one class is outside on the playground. A parent approaches the front door and is buzzed in. As the parent walks through the door another person also enters … the parent heads to the office to sign in but the other person heads down a hallway. A teacher in the hall asks the unknown intruder to go to the office to sign in … the request is ignored and the teacher notices the intruder is carrying a weapon.

    The intruder continues down the hallway. The teacher enters a classroom and calls a lockdown. Upon hearing the lockdown, the intruder draws his weapon, quickly enters a classroom and holds the class hostage.

    Once presented with the scenario, groups are asked questions.

    Principal and staff might be asked such things as:

    • What is your initial response?
    • What notifications need to be made?
    • What information will you  provide?
    • What information do you need?
    • What early preparations would be made?
    • What complications come to mind?
    • Where is your incident command post?
    • What information will you give the 911 operator and what will you need from them?
    • Understanding you may be in a lockdown for up to five hours or more, what complications come to mind?

    Teachers might be asked:

    • What is your initial response inside the building? Outside?
    • What additional resources would you need initially?
    • What are your response actions as the event continues?
    • What are you doing in your classrooms during the event?
    • What communication options do you have?
    • What if you are in the gym or other non-classroom?
    • What complications come to mind?

    First responder questions might include:

    • What are your initial actions?
    • What information do you need?
    • What are your actions in route to the school?
    • What are your actions once on the scene?

    Once the intruder has been apprehended by law enforcement, the incident doesn’t end. There are two more modules for the tabletop exercise.

    Final module scenarios might include:

    The intruder has been apprehended … there are injuries sustained in the hostage classroom. The school is locked down because this is now a crime scene … students and staff will need to be relocated and prepared for reunification because families … arriving to be reunified with loved ones … while immediate threat is over, order still must be maintained and all students accounted for and reunified with parents in a calm and orderly manner.

    Students may be relocated to off-school-site areas and there could be more than one, noted Secrest. It is imperative, she says, that each child is cleared to leave with an identified parent/caretaker. Consequently, the reunification area must be controlled and orderly.

    “There might be more than one reunification site,” says Secrest, “and they must be secure to make sure each parent gets their child.”

    And, again, each group has a series of questions to answer.

    Drills/EOPs/AARs

    In addition to tabletop exercises, schools need to hold lockdown drills. Schools are used to conducting requisite fire drills, Hill said, but not so much with lockdown drills. “During fire drills, students somewhat casually walk outside and stand chatting … a lockdown is very different.”

    Hill noted that lockdowns often require students to be quiet and hide. She agreed that lockdown drills could be scary for students.

    Each school Secrest works with gets an Emergency Operation Plan. This is a binder about two inches thick that covers contingencies, trainings, federal and state requirements, and after action review procedures.

    After each tabletop exercise, After Action Reviews are done with school staff and first responders and the school’s EOP and staff slip charts updated taking into consideration what may have come out of the exercise.

    Secrest

    Secrest grew up in Texas and earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. She came to New England after college.

    She became a major partner is a consulting firm dealing with environmental management.

    She came to the county EMA in 2008.

    “The schools needed plans and didn’t have any,” explains Hill, “after Columbine and Stockton Springs there were a growing number of school incidents so this [school EOPs] was part of the national EMA movement.”

    But it is up to the schools to ask for training. In the SAD 17 district all eight elementary schools and the middle school work with Secrest.

    Secrest feels strongly that all schools should have more lockdown drills. She says the state mandates 10 drills a year but doesn’t determine how many should be fire and how many should be lockdown.

    “How many times do you hear about a school catching fire?

    Lockdown and evacuation drills are not as easy as fire drills, she says. “A lockdown requires dead silence and an evacuation might take you further [from the school] than a fire drill or out a window.”

    She notes the county has floor plans for every school and updated first responder contact information and it can access school cameras remotely in an emergency.

    School incidents, Hill and Secrest say, take a toll on everyone.

    “First responders will all know someone in the school, the emotional toll is great,” they say.

    Well prepared

    The county, says Hill, is well prepared. “RCC’s [Oxford County Regional Communications Center] notification system has a page that goes to every law enforcement personnel in the state with an instantaneous notification.

    Hill notes there is an upcoming meeting with law enforcement, dispatchers and the state to talk about law enforcement and county-wide protocols for school response.

    For more information on enlisting Secrest and her expertise, contact the Oxford County Emergency Management Agency at 743-6336 or ema@oxfordcounty.org.