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N.D. responders practice for disaster

GRAND FORKS, N.D. Grand Forks Central High School was the site of school shootings, found explosive devices and a hazardous material spill all in one day as part of a training exercise for local emergency responders and school officials.

More than 50 law enforcement and emergency responders worked Tuesday to fine-tune communications between their departments and the Grand Forks Public School system, in case anything ever goes awry.

Grand Forks police officers, including members of the department's Special Operations groups the SWAT team and Bomb Squad county Sheriff's Department officers, firefighters, Altru ambulance EMT's, as well as Grand Forks Air Force Base and school officials were at the high school from about 10 a.m. to about 5 p.m. Tuesday. Officials ran different exercises, including a school shooting scenario, a hostage situation and the search for two explosive devices within the building.

Communication is key

The run-through of various situations was meant to identify any glitches that might exist between agencies as they respond to an emergency situation on school grounds. Law enforcement officials videotaped the exercises.

"Nothing stood out," said Lt. Mark Nelson of the Grand Forks Police Department, who was in charge of the training exercise. "All functional areas are talking."

A focal point for Tuesday's training session was the incident command center, where officials who have the authority to make decisions gathered.

During an emergency situation, it's important that all areas talk to each other, Nelson said.

One of the largest training sessions the Police Department has staged, Tuesday's exercise takes response to school emergencies one step further than a similar exercise at Red River High School in 2005.

The exercise at Red River focused on the initial response to an emergency situation. Tuesday's session focused on communication between departments, as well as refining and testing initial response techniques from each agency.

Thirty volunteers, including students and teachers, played the roles of victims; many were acting wounded, and some even were exposed (as part of the training session) to hazardous materials only to be hosed down by the department's hazardous materials team. Public access was limited around the training site to keep it as realistic as possible.

The minor issues will be addressed, he said, though he didn't know what those might be. Each team has evaluations to fill out, and any issues would be team-specific, Nelson said. Overall, the exercise was positive.

About 30 Grand Forks Public School officials, including each principal of the district's 18 schools, participated in the training exercise, said Jody Thompson, assistant superintendent of elementary education.

Several new security items at the school came in handy.

Thompson said school principals were able to watch SWAT team members react to mock emergencies from the auditorium with the school's new surveillance camera system, he said. Also, two-way radios allowed better communication.

School officials have asked the School Board to purchase more two-way radios and an automated calling system.

An automated calling system would allow school officials to notify parents, media and community members within minutes of an incident by phone, e-mail and pager, Thompson said.

School officials could tell parents the "reunification" site where they could pick up their children, he said. Parents are asked not to come to the school in the event of an incident. Each school's assigned reunification site is published in its fall newsletter. At Central High, the site is nearby St. Michael's Catholic School.

An automated calling system would cost the district $30,000 a year, Thompson said. Additional two-way radios would cost about $15,000, he said.

School officials practiced working in the incident command center, where emergency decisions are made, for the first time Tuesday, Thompson said. They had not done that in the Red River High School exercise two years ago, he said.

Practicing the basic decision-making procedures will prepare school officials to think on their feet should a crisis arise, Thompson said.

School officials plan to continue doing the drill every two years, Thompson said. Next time, it may be held at a middle school or elementary school, since it already has been done at two high schools.

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