MARSHALL - A mock chemical explosion scenario at Marshall Middle School got more than 60 community members talking on Thursday.
The table top discussion brought school and community members together to work through crisis plans, which would be crucial in the event of actual disasters. Lyon County Emergency Manager Tammy VanOverbeke called the community exercise a valuable "stepping stone" in route to being equipped to handle such events.
"I think everyone was really engaged," said VanOverbeke. "There were some new relationships established. The possibility that a number of lives could be saved, it's phenomenal."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Marshall High School Assistant Principal Jeremy Williams, back, helped to facilitate a table top discussion among Marshall Public School, district parochial school personnel and community leaders Thursday. More than 60 people came together to work through mock crisis exercises in the hope of gaining collective knowledge and a sense of preparedness.
Marshall Public Schools committee members, including Deb Herrmann, La Oeltjenbruns and Tricia Stelter, helped join school district personnel with representatives of local health and human services, emergency response, public safety, law enforcement, fire department and media in addition to outside resources like Taher Food Service, Southwest Coaches and Southwest Minnesota State University.
One of the most critical factors, participants realized, was quickly establishing a chain of command, beginning with the "Incident Commander" (IC) who will be in charge. In the first case scenario, with an explosion at MMS, discussion centered around whether Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert or a member of emergency personnel should be thrust front and center. Russ Labat, Marshall Independent publisher, pointed out that whoever it is, the person should be clear of the scene and be prepared to communicate with a number of individuals.
"People have to know how they can communicate with the person in charge," Labat said. "They need to know where he'll be at."
The use of a command system, beginning with the IC and branching out to include Operations, Planning and Logistics divisions, is pertinent to establishing order. Operations people, known as "worker bees," would be responsible for site security, student release or reunification and the school medical team.
"We have to know who is in charge," Marshall firefighter Ray Henriksen said. "We have to get as much information as possible, like where it happened, what happened and where the extent of the evacuation is at."
Rob Yant, director of public safety at the Marshall Police Department, said that when a HazMat (Hazardous Materials) team has to get involved, the dynamics change a bit.
"Life saving is the highest priority," Yant said. "You have to determine if it's an accident or crime scene. There's also perimeter security and where to direct the people to."
In a community the size of Marshall, Yant said it was important to work together with various organizations.
"We're going to work in a unified command," he said.
That also involves keeping the media abreast of situations. Labat and Aaron Ziemer, news and sports director at Marshall Radio, pointed out that, with the increasing amount of social media communication in today's society, word of disasters gets out very quickly.
"The biggest thing, for our needs, is accessibility and getting information quickly," Ziemer said. "There's no way to control the spread of texting and so on. And, parents will want to come rushing to the school."
Especially in the case of an explosion, where students and staff are evacuated to another location like the Marshall YMCA, media can help dispel rumors, calm the panic and safely re-route traffic.
"You have to treat us like animals and feed us," Labat said. "We can get information out the quickest."
VanOverbeke said that establishing a mutual respect between organizations and the media is key. As spokesperson for the spotlighted MMS team, Abbie Boelter clarified what steps would be taken to alert parents of the situation.
"We'd communicate with parents through our Blackboard system, the radio and the newspaper," she said.
In any case of evacuation, including fire drills, Boelter said a suitcase with a bullhorn, first-aid supplies and student information, like rosters and parent release forms.
Currently, all Minnesota schools are mandated to have a crisis plan in place, but it is nearly impossible to plan for every type of crisis, especially when it filters out into the community. The second mock scenario involved a chemical spill at the intersection of Minnesota Highways 19 and 23. Taking the wind into account, Marshall High School was affected and students and staff were not able to be evacuated. Area businesses would also be in a lockdown mode.
"The first thing we'd do is get an ICS team together," MHS Principal Brian Jones said. "We'd start the notification process to the district office and then get the ventilation system shut down. We'd probably go into a soft lockdown, where no one leaves or enters the building."
With appropriate help organizations entering the scene as quickly as possible and media relaying the most accurate information as soon as it is available, the situation hopefully would be under control, with traffic diverted, medical personnel standing by and panic at a minimal.
With a chemical spill, however, Travis Prill of Southwest Minnesota Chemical Assessment said that the process cannot be rushed. Experts have to be very cautious about the calculations.
"We have to determine what the toxic level is, where the plume (of smoke) is going and know the kind of chemical and how much is involved," Prill said. "We might not be able to enter if it's too hot. We'd let it burn, so you'd have to expect a long wait time."
Since the spill reportedly happened near the edge of Marshall, there was also a question of whether the Lyon County sheriff or Marshall Police Department officials were regarded as the point man. Lyon County Sheriff Mark Mather said he appreciated the table top discussion because it helped clear up some of the overlapping issues people might have.
"The common person doesn't necessarily distinguish between departments," he said. "They see a badge and a uniform, but they don't really know whose jurisdiction it is. This was good to help clear up a lot of misconceptions."
The third experimental situation involved an intruder at Park Side Elementary School. Again, MPS officials walked through the process, pretending to contact emergency and other resources as needed. The process, participants said, was a good step toward building strong and meaningful connections within the community.
"It's an opportunity for conversations to take place," said Marshall High School Assistant Principal Jeremy Williams, who helped facilitate the crisis plan process. "There may be more questions than answers. But this is a way that you can talk through what to do in case of emergencies."