Agencies unite to improve crisis notification

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The harrowing threat to public safety posed by a suspect who murdered a local woman, drove recklessly through streets while firing a weapon and ultimately led officers on a high-speed chase had a sobering effect on those charged with protecting the young and the vulnerable in our community.

To address how critical notifications would get out in a crisis, the Ridgecrest Police Department hosted a meeting last week with representatives from local schools, which were put on lock-down during the height of the events on Oct. 25.

“We wanted an opportunity to assess any unmet need,” said Police Chief Ron Strand, whose force fielded reports that the gunman was driving near Gateway Elementary School, while officers were critical minutes away from stopping him if he chose to descend upon the school.

“Obviously, when this went down, the main school we were concerned about was Gateway. But since we didn’t know exactly where he was going or what he was going to do, Sierra Sands Unified School District put every school on lockdown,” said Strand.

Sierra Sands not only put out notices to their own schools, but also helped contact officials of every local private, charter and preschool institution in the valley.

“We know that there is already a good working relationship between a lot of neighboring schools, Monroe Middle School and St. Ann is one example. But we wanted to find a way of improving communication.”

Strand acknowledged that although there have been targeted lockdowns before, he has never experienced one like this. “And quite frankly, I don’t perceive this happening very often. But we need to be prepared for whatever might happen.”

From that standpoint, he said, representatives at the meeting were able to identify and address some gaps in communication.

“The bottom line is that we came away with a lot of ways to improve things,” said Strand.

“First, I hope nothing like this never happens again,” said Sgt. Jed McLaughlin, who is leading the RPD investigation of the murder. “But having the schools involved really helped us.

“When something like this happens, dispatch is completely overwhelmed with calls. It was just luck that we happened to have another dispatcher come in right when this happened, but what really helped was being able to make one phone call to the school district and having them relay the message throughout the other schools.”

Parents received electronic and voice mail notifications in real time during the incident. Strand said that system will be refined to be comprehensive for the parents and efficient for the agencies involved.

SSUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Ernie Bell, who is also the safety coordinator of the district, said that he believed attendees came away with critical information about how to improve things.

“Obviously we hope nothing like this ever happens again, but coming together like this we were all able to share information and ideas — and honestly, I don’t know of a time when all of us have ever had the chance to sit down together like this.”

On the day of the crisis, SSUSD sent out electronic and voicemail notifications to parents that gave real-time updates of the lockdown and eventual conclusion of the threat.

Bell said that Sierra Sands will implement a system so that after one phone call by the PD, all schools will receive notifications about threats to public safety. “At that point, each individual school will put into play whatever protocol they have established to get those notices out to parents and staff.”

Story First Published: 2013-11-06