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Emergency Workers Retrace Va. Tech Lessons

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Va. -- Nearing the second anniversary of a mass shooting at Virginia Tech, many of the state's emergency management workers continue to ponder how they responded to the tragedy on that day.

"We just pray that somewhere along the line, what we've done and what we have experienced ... has made a difference," said Neal Turner, the emergency services coordinator for Montgomery County, which includes Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg.

Turner and Stanley Crigger, a regional coordinator in southwest Virginia with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, discussed the Virginia Tech response at the 2009 Virginia Emergency Management Conference at the Hampton Roads Convention Center Thurs day. They said emergency managers are communicating better because of what they learned after April 16, 2007.

"The events of Virginia Tech are so real every day on every college campus, every high school and every middle school around the United States," Turner said. "We hear things every day where students are bringing guns to school."

On that day, gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed two students in West Ambler Johnston Hall at 7:15 a.m. At 9:40 a.m., Cho began an 11-minute shooting spree in Norris Hall, killing 30 students and teachers and wounding many others before killing himself.

Police officers came from 40 law enforcement agencies, and more than 120 first-responders arrived from rescue agencies, along with 27 ambulances.

Bomb threats were made immediately after the shootings, heightening fear on campus, Turner recalled .

"Any noise brought back that idea that someone else was going to be shot," he said.

Among the many tasks in the days after the shootings were feeding police officers, providing counseling to first responders, working in the shadow of about 160 news trucks and cleaning up the campus.

Turner outlined the response from the community, church groups and the private sector. A local Wal-Mart provided chicken dinners to police and responders for a month for free, he said. A rapid response team of chaplains arrived from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

The shootings and aftermath are leading to improved day-to-day communication between emergency responders, he said.

"The greatest step in what we've done to change things is we began to communicate with each other," he said. "Sometimes it's just getting together and sitting down and saying, 'What's going on in your world? What can I do to help you?'"

Patrick Wilson, (757) 446-2957, patrick.wilson@pilotonline.com

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