Emergency managers, police and school officials want to improve response protocol to threats, including active shooters, in Tooele County schools.
Every year, county emergency management identifies an issue that its public safety stakeholders need to pay extra attention to. This year the focus is on lockdowns, lockouts and other methods for keeping the student population safe during potentially dangerous events, TCEM director Bucky Whitehouse said.
The issue is being addressed in several different ways — improving guidelines and school staff response to align with best practices, working closely with first responders when creating strategies, and a full-scale active shooter demonstration next spring to test emergency preparedness.
“Active shooter policies or plans are very fluid and they’re changing,” Whitehouse said. “There’s an identified need that we needed to be able to make some changes to the current plan.”
Over the past year, school and law enforcement representatives have met to discuss school and police policies and simplifying the way information on incidents is passed from administration down through students and parents.
Terry Christensen, the Tooele County School District’s human resources director, said the school district previously used text-heavy guidelines that provided a lot of information but were difficult to train on and remember.
“We’re trying to simplify and still address those needs by being a little bit more proactive,” Christensen said. “Has it happened here in Tooele? No, but we know that the potential is there … We wanted to be as prepared as possible so we know our kids are safe.”
Whitehouse said TCEM reviewed a number of different programs before settling on the expected future plan for Tooele County Schools, the standard response protocol from the I Love U Guys Foundation. The protocol involves four potential responses to an emergency — lockdown, lockout, evacuate and shelter in place — using simple terminology.
One of the newest components, the lockout, was put to practical use on Dec. 1 when a fugitive was spotted and pursued by Grantsville City police near schools.
“A lockout is basically business as usual inside the doors of the school, but all of the perimeter doors are locked so nobody can get in the school,” Whitehouse said.
Tooele County Sheriff Paul Wimmer said that having students inside and behind closed doors protects them when public safety is dealing with animal at-large incidents, fugitives and most types of police pursuits. There’s no reason students should be sheltering under their desks or hiding in a closet when the threat is external and not actively seeking to enter a school, he said.
“It’s probably a more appropriate response for most of what we do,” Wimmer said.
A lockdown under the standard response protocol includes a brief phrase to reference the action teachers and students need to take: “Locks, lights, out of sight.” Lockdowns are used when there is an internal threat and locked doors can slow or stop the assailant as police respond, Wimmer said.
Under the same protocol, an evacuation is a response to a fire or other disaster that makes the school building unsafe. Students would respond to predetermined evacuation sites.
The flip side is shelter in place, which has students and personnel remain inside the school due to external threat like a nearby hazmat incident that isn’t capable or trying to get into a school, Whitehouse said.
While many of the procedures may be familiar, the way the information would be conveyed to teachers and students would change, Christensen said. In the past, the school district used different codes like “Adam” or “Charlie” to relay information about the type of incident.
Under the standard response protocol, common language is preferred so there’s no confusion on what the incident is and what is the appropriate response to the threat, Christensen said.
“Instead of saying a code Adam or Charlie or whatever to identify an active shooter, it’s ‘We have an active shooter. He’s in the lower halls. Please lock down the school,’” he said. “Very common sense, very plain speak language to where the message gets across.”
Simplifying the language also benefits the dozens of new teachers and staff that join the school district every year, Christensen said. The previous policy was harder to train and for teachers to remember, he said.
“We’re trying to get to the point where we can have something very simple, very easy to follow, that doesn’t require a huge amount of training,” Christensen said. “A lot of these things are really just common sense.”
Wimmer agreed that the new protocol should make life easier on those in the school and in communication between the district and police.
“This is trainable, this is teachable,” Wimmer said. “This is also something you can remember.”
The active shooter training drill slated for the spring will be a test of the new simplified policy and the working relationship between the school district, police and other first responders. Wimmer said the idea to do a full-scale drill came after watching a similar exercise by Canyons School District, which he called “unbelievable.”
“We’ve never done it to this extent and we’re overdue because this is one of those situations where we have to plan on when it happens versus if it happens,” Wimmer said.
It’s especially important to train because everyone has a different role during an active shooter incident, Wimmer said.
“Even though the greatest mission is to save lives, our component of it varies from discipline to discipline,” he said.
The response to active shooting situations has evolved since his initial training more than 20 years ago, Wimmer said. The training in the early 1990s had been to establish a perimeter and send in a SWAT team to deal with the threat.
By the time a SWAT team arrived on the scene, the event with the active shooter would be over, with the victims and shooter already dead, Wimmer said. Most active shooter events only last about five to eight minutes, so the focus has been on sending in a three- to four-officer team as soon as they arrive on scene, he said.
“The tactics on how to treat an active gunman evolved immensely in the late 90s and early 2000s,” Wimmer said.
As more events like the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 happened in the country, police instead focused on taking the fight to the shooter so they’re not shooting helpless victims, Wimmer said. The three- or four-member team that would respond first to a shooting would likely be a mix of city, county and Utah Highway Patrol officers, he said.
Following a disastrous situation, reunification locations would be identified by the school district, which spreads that information through social media, the reverse callout system and other notification systems. Christensen said parents, or whoever is coming to pick up a student at reunification, should be on a list of trusted individuals and bring photo ID.
While the new protocol hasn’t gone through the rigorous field training at the end of the year yet, Whitehouse is optimistic the new guidelines are an improvement.
“We’re smarter now,” he said. “We’ve simplified the process and it’s created better results for everyone involved with a simplified system.”