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It's only a drill - but an important one w/video

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Alexandria firefighters carry a student from the scene of a drill for a school bus crash Monday evening. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)3 / 6
Alexandria police officers keep people portraying anxious parents from getting in the way at the scene of a mock bus crash. Parents were directed to proceed to a reunification center which would keep track of all the children on the bus. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)4 / 6
Firefighters remove injured students from an opening they cut in the roof of the school bus during a drill Monday evening. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)5 / 6
Alexandria firefighters work to create an opening in the roof of an overturned school bus during a mock crash Monday evening. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)6 / 6

Emergency vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring descended upon the scene of a school bus turned on its side last Monday evening on 41st Avenue just west of Target in the Alexandria Industrial Park. A crowd of onlookers milled about watching the action as emergency workers went about rescuing the more than 20 children trapped inside the overturned vehicle.

This could have been a tragedy for the community. But fortunately this time it was only a training exercise.

The exercise was a collaboration between Alexandria Public Schools, local law enforcement, the fire department, North Memorial Ambulance, Alomere Health and Douglas County Emergency Management. It was designed to improve emergency response in the event of a serious accident involving children trapped during a school bus crash.

"It was a powerful drill," said Julie Critz, superintendent of Alexandria Public Schools. "To my recollection, a drill of this magnitude has not been done before with this many essential agencies."

Critz said that the school updates its crisis plan each year and practices everything in it.

"Part of last night was designed to identify gap areas not previously identified regarding a bus incident, and this is something we have never practiced," she said.

One of the most important goals of the exercise for Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow was to test a "unified command" strategy, which is how multiple agencies coordinate management of an emergency. He said that everything came together successfully.

A potentially grim scene

During the exercise, a school bus was turned on its side to simulate the crash, with children and adults playing the parts of injured and trapped students, panicked parents searching for their children and even a media member asking questions of witnesses.

There was also a "reunification table" staffed by volunteers whose purpose was to reunite parents with their children. Volunteers checked parent identification and helped to account for each child involved in the incident.

Following the emergency call from the dispatch center, law enforcement was first on the scene, followed by ambulances and then the fire department. As firefighters cut through the roof of the school bus, a mock "incident command center" was set up 20-30 feet to the east of scene. From this location, the command chiefs from each agency were able to communicate with each other while overseeing and directing the action.

The participating agencies assembled Wednesday, Aug. 29, to discuss what went well, what issues need to be addressed, what they learned, and make suggestions.

"The exercise went very well," said Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen. "We were happy with what we learned."

He said that one of the most important benefits was working with the other entities who will be involved in emergency incidents.

"We learn who those people are and how to make contact with them efficiently so that when a real incident occurs we are ready for it," the sheriff said.

"It was a great event and we learned a lot," Karrow said. "I timed the operation from the moment our command rig arrived on-scene to the moment we got the last child out of the bus and it was 34 minutes."

Karrow said that one thing the fire department learned was how difficult the school buses are to cut into.

"We did not realize how tough the inner skin and outer skin were," he said. "We used a few different tools to get through, so we learned what tools we would need in that situation."

Critz said the primary goal of the schools was to learn how efficiently they communicate within the school and also with other agencies.

She also said the priority order of who is notified first was important. It is essential to communicate quickly with the families directly and personally so they are not hearing about the incident from a neighbor or a friend.

"It's also important to ensure that we are contacting the right parents, because not all students will be on the bus if it crashes," Critz said.

As a result of the exercise, the school will be refining its protocols for data privacy and information exchange, as well as knowing who is actually on the bus if and when an accident occurs.

Once the children were rescued from the bus, they were reunited with their parents, while those with mock injuries were brought to Alomere Health.

"It was a nice symphony of emergency management agencies responding to a drill that hopefully we will never need to do in real life," said Eddie Reif, communications director for the hospital.

He said that even though the hospital does an extensive job working on internal emergency management protocols, it still always learns from exercises like this one.

"Every time we think we have things covered we find gaps," he said. "It's usually little things like making sure we have a security guard in place to coordinate parking during the emergency. But our staff and all the agencies did an excellent job.

"In the event of a true emergency I am confident we will pull together as a community."