Niagara Gazette

November 11, 2013

Emergency preparedness plans getting an overhaul at Niagara-Wheatfield

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Each year, New York State Education Department require school districts review their emergency preparedness plans and approve any changes needed.

Niagara-Wheatfield Superintendent Lynn Marie Fusco felt a proper time to do it in her district would be immediately following a less-than-stellar emergency dismissal at Errick Road Elementary at the end of October, which she said left some parents a little concerned.

“It was obviously unanticipated,” she said. “Fire alarms were not working properly and it was unsafe to have the children occupy the building. Our first concern is always safety for our students and to make sure they’re safe and sheltered and well cared for. We recognize the student pickup could be improved.”

Fusco said an opportunity for parents to comment on their experiences with the dismissal was made available on the district’s website, offering a chance for parents to suggest improvements to the district’s response, which was led by the school’s safety team.

Consisting of members of the school’s staff, including principal Nora O’Bryan, the safety team is going to take the online information, as well as their own observations, and modify some of the practices the school uses in these emergency situations.

The school’s plan will then be incorporated into the larger, district plan, which the school board will approve likely later this month.

Errick Road’s evacuation marked the second major incident at a Niagara-Wheatfield building in the calendar year, following a fire at West Street Elementary this past spring, which caused the school board to create a new policy formally outlawing small appliances, like toasters and microwaves – the cause of the fire – from the building except in specified areas.

The incidents will help the district fine tune its responses, through building-level checklists which are modified from generic, state-level items all districts receive.

Still, district Facilities Administrator Delbert Ambrosia, who leads the district-wide safety team, said he’d like to see the building-level groups strengthened.

“The more minds you have in the process, the safer you are,” he said, presenting some of the district’s current plan to the school board Wednesday.

Some of the strengthening may come from the district taking better advantage of training available to its personnel, which he said could be done. Efforts have been made to incorporate a number of first-responding agencies like fire departments and police are being expanded, he said, but may only aid in a portion of what could be bettered if he had his way.

Part of the emergency team is to recognize not just what to do in a situation requiring outside help, but also why it’s happening in the first place. So far, the district has only had to deal with fire-related issues, but if a situation evolved concerning the use of a firearm, the district’s personnel would need to know what to do then, including any substitute teachers.

Another way of combatting these situations, though, is finding out why they occur and stopping them before anything negative happens. It’s this path that is seeing the most change, Ambrosia said, in terms of creating a district safety plan.

“The procedures are not changing much concerning what to do in or after an emergency,” he said. “We’ve seen it from Columbine right up through Sandy Hook, those things aren’t changing, I think they’ve got those down. The focus is now on identifying why it’s happening” and stopping it before it occurs.

Ambrosia also offered the district should investigate ways of updating its digital recording devices outside its buildings, as well as improve the quality and the numbers of cameras inside.

If a situation arrises, police officers would be able to have an eye inside the building if they need one, should the district improve its camera system. He said there are grants available for cameras, which the district has applied to receive.

But the cameras actually aren’t No. 1 on his wish list. Instead, he said, he’d rather the district invest in a recording device capable of handling the digital video load the school would require.

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.