December 13, 2017

Preparing for the worst

Observer photo by Al Frey
Cpt. Tim Gerry of the Williston Fire Department reviews the department’s role in the Nov. 15 emergency preparedness drill held at Allen Brook School.

Schools practice evacuation, relocation, reunification and communication in mock emergency

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Parents of students at Allen Brook School got a surprise notification Nov. 15: their children had been evacuated from the school, temporarily relocated and needed to be picked up from the new location.

Williston schools have practiced this type of evacuation and relocation drill before. But this was the first time parents were asked to pick their children up from the new location.

“Parents weren’t aware the drill was happening until it was underway,” Williston Principal Greg Marino said. “That was intentional.”

The mock emergency was coordinated with the Vermont Agency of Emergency Management. A crew from the agency observed the process and is preparing an evaluation report on the school’s performance.

The drill was designed to mimic an emergency where the school becomes uninhabitable. It tested the school’s process for evacuation, relocation and reunification with parents, as well as its communication with parents and media and collaboration with local emergency services.

Williston schools public information officer Bonnie Birdsall set up a temporary emergency headquarters with Williston Fire Department public information officer Prescott Nadeau at the fire station during the drill.

In a survey after the drill, about 80 percent of parents said they received word of the drill and the alternate pickup location via the school’s automated phone message system. According to Birdsall, many of the parents who received the phone message immediately called the school back before listening to the message, resulting in a flood of calls to the school.

About 10 percent learned about the drill via email, and about 10 percent via a notification on the Williston school app.

School administrators are encouraging more parents to download the app, available by searching “Williston School District” on the iTunes or Google Play stores. About 560 people have downloaded the app since it was launched last year, Birdsall said.

In the post-drill survey, some parents said they would have liked to have known about the drill ahead of time. But that would have defeated some of the purpose, Marino said.

At the end of the day, students who typically take the bus home did the same from the relocation site. Students who typically get picked up by parents or go to the afterschool program did that. Two students remained after the drill was over and were reunified with family members back at Allen Brook School, Marino said.

“We are really pleased with the way things went,” he said. “(Vermont Emergency Management) will work with us and go over everything they observed and make recommendations for making the process even better.”

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