Case study: How Idaho fire, police agencies worked together to prioritize school safety

Working with schools to develop a plan for initial protective actions during emergencies, like active shooter events


I was sitting in my office one day, thinking of the events of the Parkland shooting and how our department would respond if a similarly unthinkable tragedy were to happen in my city.

My first call was to Lt. Shawn Harper of the Meridian (Idaho) Police Department. As the fire marshal for our city, I just assumed that everything was taken care of and covered by police. But my ignorance of the topic became very clear very quickly.

Lt. Harper and I soon began working on what was to become one of my (and our team’s) greatest accomplishments of my career.

"If you have not had discussions with your local police department, school district and school principals, it’s time to get to know your local community partners and open the discussion about how to mitigate such incidents in your area," Joe Bongiorno writes. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The issue: Inconsistencies abound

Right off the bat, we found that virtually every jurisdiction/school district had plans and protocols in place for dealing with school emergencies. However, there were variations in the basic terminology and procedures, as well as different priorities and perspectives among fire, police and emergency services personnel when it came to preparing for and responding to school emergencies. This was not just a problem district to district; it was school to school, even classroom to classroom at the same school.

This led to the determination that an enduring partnership needed to be in place to facilitate a consistent and multi-disciplinary approach to making our schools safer. This would include partnerships among school districts, school boards, fire, police, EMS and the Office of School Safety.

[Review: Active shooter resources for firefighters]

Partnerships and priorities

First, we formed a committee that included people from all over Idaho. We found that the needs here in the Treasure Valley are not the same as in other parts of the state. As such, the goal was to find a solution that would work no matter where it was implemented.

As its first order of business, the Committee expanded its reach to additional first responder organizations and school districts across the state to collect their input and enlist their support in developing standardized emergency response procedures. Understanding that a long-term engagement of technical support to planning, training and exercising was critical, the Committee decided to start its work with a focus on standardizing protocols and concepts for the initial protective actions a school should take during an emergency situation or heightened threat environment.

This focus led to the development of the Idaho Standard Command Responses for Schools (ISCRS), the flexible framework for initial response by a school population. Note: ISCRS has been designed for schools and doesn’t impact or alter police/fire response.

A plan for schools

The protocols are written using Incident Command System (ICS) process and terminology. The protocols are not a complete plan but rather designed as a component of an overall Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) under ICS and the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

The protocol:

  • Standardizes and shares a common group of clear initial responses applicable to a broad variety of K-12 school environments.
  • Provides four limited and unambiguous protocols in a standardized framework which each school, school district, and surrounding community can easily incorporate into their respective school and/or jurisdictional EOP.
  • Offers distinct operational procedure(s) that may be enacted in series or succession.
  • Accounts for the “in Loco Parentis” responsibilities of school staff (i.e., the legal and ethical responsibility to “stand in the place of the parents” for a child).
  • Acknowledges the mobile nature of modern education and student populations.
  • Allows for sustainability by providing free training and materials.
  • Draws from familiar procedures (examples: Run/Hide/Fight, Avoid/Deny/Defend, CRASE, etc.), existing training/experience, and prevalent lessons learned from past school-related emergencies.
  • Strengthens partnerships among school communities and first responders to build and enhance a culture of safety and preparedness.
Lt. Shawn Harper and Deputy Chief Joe Bongiorno with their Association of Idaho Cities award for the ISCRS Program.
Lt. Shawn Harper and Deputy Chief Joe Bongiorno with their Association of Idaho Cities award for the ISCRS Program. (Photo/Courtesy of Joe Bongiorno)

Four command responses

Once the goals were realized, the four command responses were developed. These responses could easily be placed into any school’s safety plan. The command responses can be enacted in series or succession. The command responses focus on the following:

1. Evacuation

  • This involves removing students and staff from dangerous situations inside a building.
  • Staff are expected to be aware of their surroundings and make decisions based on active awareness of circumstances
  • Movement must be safe, controlled and intentional.

2. Reverse evacuation

  • This involves removing students and staff from dangerous situations outside a building.
  • This command response can be used for dangers on the playground or outside, or law enforcement activity or other emergencies.
  • It is instituted at the discretion of the principal/designee for any situation that poses a threat to the life safety of students, staff or visitors.

3. Hallcheck

  • This involves detection of and protection from potential threats while continuing instruction.
  • It is a procedure for responding to lower-level threat inside a school.
  • It focuses on a high level of active awareness.
  • Some examples of when this command response would be used: disruptive person, unknown person on campus, out of control student, medical issue, or any other unknown situation in and/or around a school building.

4. Lockdown – move/secure/defend

  • This involves procedures for staff and students to respond to an imminent threat or active violence inside a school.
  • The options-based approach allows each individual to process information and make a decision.

It is the assumption that the building principal/designee will act as the initial incident commander until relieved. Once first responders arrive, the principal/designee will establish communication and provide a liaison as described under the ICS unified command protocol.

The command response protocols serve as a planning framework to be applicable to a broad variety of school environments. Specific information, such as evacuation routes, assembly points, succession of command and special considerations, are to be identified at the district or school level and documented within the EOP. These items are noted in the planning considerations section of the documentation for each of the four responses.

Implementing the plan

Once the command responses were developed, more partnerships were employed. We worked with the Office of School Safety to develop a curriculum for training staff. A local radio personality also recorded videos on each protocol. Such videos can be assigned to staff as reminders of what defines each protocol.

A full curriculum was completed, and training has been implemented, starting here in the Treasure Valley.

Results and benefits

Approximately half of the state school districts in Idaho, plus a few in Oregon and Utah, are utilizing this program.

The benefits of collaboration include:

  • Input and involvement among all partners to create a thorough and complete program
  • Conversations among involved partners for better understanding of expectations/needs
  • Improved overall relationships between organizations
  • Further collaboration and support on other projects: police response to school fire alarms; police assisting fire with secondary locking devices; and the Valley-Wide Rescue Task Force (ASHER – Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response)

Throughout the entire process, communication was key. We held weekly meetings to ensure we came out with a solid product. If you have not had discussions with your local police department, school district and school principals, it’s time to get to know your local community partners and open the discussion about how to mitigate such incidents in your area.

[Download: NFPA 3000: Preparing and training firefighters for active shooter incidents (eBook)]

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