An emergency preparedness drill was conducted by local officials Tuesday, leading to the planned evacuation of Napoleon Junior/Senior High School.
The exercise started at 8:35 a.m., when the board office was notified of a chlorine leak near the swimming pool pumps with a vapor cloud, leading to the evacuation approximately half a mile to St. Paul Lutheran Church and School. Napoleon Elementary School, which is located across the street, was locked down and students sheltered in place.
As more than 900 people were evacuating from the building, assisted by Napoleon Police Department officers closing roads and blocking traffic, crews from Napoleon Fire and Rescue, including the hazardous materials unit (hazmat), arrived on scene. An ambulance from the Henry County South Joint Ambulance District was also on scene.
There were four “victims” of the leak initially rescued from the building by fire crews, who also set up a decontamination area to ensure no chemicals were remaining on them. Crews returned in hazmat gear to address the leak.
By 9:58 a.m., crews had cleared the building and students started to return to the school, arriving back in time for lunch.
Henry County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Tracy Busch said he thinks the overall exercise went well, adding the initial evacuation was completed in 26 minutes, which is impressive.
“I think that’s really good, especially for the first time doing it,” Busch said. “They worked hard on it, and I’m very proud of them.
“I’m very, very happy, I think it was well-organized,” he added.
Napoleon Area City Schools Superintendent Erik Belcher agreed the exercise went well.
“In my perspective, I think things went very well,” he said, adding the district officials will be reviewing their response and making any necessary changes to their plans.
Overall, Belcher said he thinks communications was a high point, both between the schools, as well as between the school and emergency responders.
Belcher was at a command center on the campus with a Napoleon Police officer, coordinating information coming from Napoleon Junior/Senior High School Principal Ryan Wilde, who was in the student parking lot with first responders, and school officials at the elementary school and St. Paul, as well as coordinating messages that would have been released to media outlets, social media and the school alert system.
“The communication was excellent,” Belcher said. “That communication was the key to it all.
“If we can communicate, we can adapt and react,” he added. “As much as you plan for these things, you have to expect the unexpected, you need to be able to expect the unexpected.”
Napoleon Fire Chief Clayton O’Brien said he thought the drill went well, and he’s happy with how fire and rescue crews performed.
“I thought that our crews did really, really well,” he said, adding the first priority for the department is the victims.
Napoleon Police Chief David Mack agreed the evacuation was handled well, which was the department’s number one goal — helping that to occur safely by shutting roads down as soon as possible.
“We don’t want kids going everywhere,” Mack said. “Heavy traffic patterns are a concern, especially in the area we’re talking — Glenwood and Woodlawn.”
Secondary to that, the department was to secure the sites — both at the evacuation point in case parents would try to pick up students and the site of the spill.
Both Busch and Henry County EMA Deputy Director Nick Nye said the overall goal of the exercise is to evaluate what parts of emergency plans worked well and areas which need improved.
“The whole purpose of doing exercises like this is to find out weak points and strengths ... so if a real incident does arise, we know the best way to handle it,” Nye said.
Busch added a focus of a future tabletop exercise might be how students would be reunified with their parents in a similar situation.
Anita Stechschulte, representative from the Ohio EMA, as well as nine evaluators from area emergency management agencies, observed the exercise and later gave their thoughts and recommendations for how the exercise went.
Overall, comments were positive from the evaluators, with some recommendations suggested.
One police department dispatcher was handling all of the EMS/fire and police radio traffic for the response, and the suggestion was made to have an additional dispatcher called in or have a city clerk or secretary or even possibly someone from the school district available to document times and responses to assist the dispatcher. Mack noted staffing is an issue at the department right now, and there is one dispatcher on duty at a time approximately 90% of the time.
“That’s always been a huge hiccup for us, because I don’t have a dedicated fire side dispatch, so she’s trying to multi-task,” Mack said.
Mack added the exercise was well-publicized so the dispatcher didn’t field any calls from residents or parents questioning what was going on due to the evacuation and emergency response crews at the school. However, in a real-life situation, he noted the office would likely be flooded with calls from parents who couldn’t reach anyone at the school or other concerned residents who witnessed the emergency response.
“By default, they’re going to call us,” Mack said.
A few observations were made about much of the hazmat exercise was coordinated by O’Brien and some delegation of duties could have eased that. O’Brien said the county’s emergency radio system currently only has one channel for fire emergencies, limiting the ability to separate the response efforts for better communication, and Mack added the radios were also a concern for him. Nye said the county is nearing the implementation of its new radio system, which will move the emergency communications to a digital system with more capabilities and channels.
O’Brien also noted they were trying to work within a realistic picture of how many staff would be working on a typical Tuesday morning. In addition, mutual aid departments were not contacted because it was a drill, but if those departments responded as they would have if it was an actual emergency, O’Brien said that would have allowed Napoleon Assistant Fire Chief Joel Frey to assist in the command efforts.
It was noted a physical emergency plan was not utilized during the response, and it was also recommended the hazmat response plan be updated by local officials to more accurately reflect current standard operating procedures.
Overall, Nye said the exercise, especially the evacuation, went well.
“To move that many kids in that short period of time, is amazing,” Nye said. “It was flawless. I can’t say enough about how the school handled the evacuation, how well the police department handled closing down the roadways to make sure that evacuation was as effective as it was.
“I look forward to sitting down ... and going over what needs to be changed in the hazmat plan,” he added. “This is the whole purpose of the exercise.”