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Sheriff's office sponsors a crash course in disaster

Rescue personnel learn from a simulated car-bus accident how to control similar situations.

Published April 6, 2004

HUDSON - It looks like trouble: A beat-up white Ford Taurus - emblazoned, ironically, with a slogan about seat belt safety - and a Pasco County school bus are sitting nose-to-nose just east of the intersection of 911 Lane and Reflector Road.

Before long, an ambulance, fire engine and sheriff's cars pull up and barricade the scene. Fire rescue personnel in blaze-orange vests climb aboard the bus and start evacuating the 20 students. Minutes later, a stream of angry parents and probing reporters will arrive. Controlling the situation will be of paramount importance.

With a simulation like this, it doesn't take much extra imagination to picture the real thing.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office sponsored a daylong school bus crash exercise Monday, the first day of students' spring break, at its Safety Town training center off State Road 52 near Hudson. The site boasts a small network of streets with safety-themed names, real traffic signals and several miniature buildings that resemble everything from a fire station to a church to a McDonald's restaurant.

About 50 representatives from Pasco Fire Rescue, the Sheriff's Office and school district participated in Monday's drills. Some played members of their respective agencies, while others were given the roles of angry parents, school administrators and media.

From outside the taped-off scene, Sgt. Jack Armstrong, the supervisor for high school student resource officers, acted as director of the first exercise.

"Grab me three parents right now - and a media member," he said into his radio.

Sheriff's Cpl. Terra Winthrop and three other corporals emerged from the Home Depot building classroom, where those assigned to play parents were awaiting cues.

Winthrop ducked under the crime-scene tape and ran toward Stephanie Regan, 16, the Ridgewood High School student playing the role of her daughter.

"I want my baby!" she cried, throwing her arms around Regan and running off with her.

Meanwhile Fire Rescue workers were setting up triage stations.

The student actors were volunteers from the Sheriff's Explorers program, which introduces young people to law enforcement through a variety of activities.

Cpl. Amy Diel, a school resource officer for Mitchell High School, drew laughs for her especially vocal parental role.

"You have children, too!" she shouted as officials escorted her away from the bus to a spot behind the crime-scene tape.

The group ran through three scenarios, pausing after each for a debriefing session led by Lt. Brian Moyer, who coordinated the event, back in the classroom.

"This is a much more complicated process than we probably realized," Moyer said after the first exercise. "Even though we just walked through the procedures, there were a lot of steps that we missed."

Moyer reminded the group that none of the steps should be neglected, including calls on-site officials should make every 15 minutes to update school districts on the scene's status. Participants were given mock phone lists to simulate that process.

By the second scenario , observers found participants were correcting some of their mistakes. For one thing, they had drawn tighter boundaries on the scene and collected all of the students in one area away from the bus. But most important, all of the big decisionmakers, armed with clipboards, radios and cell phones, had gathered in a distinct corner of the scene and, as a result, appeared to be communicating more easily than before.

Tom Gavin, chief of the Pinellas County School District Police, was watching the exercise. He said his county has its own school crisis plan, but he applauded Pasco's initiative - and not just from an educational standpoint.

"Members of your staff should get Academy Awards," he told Moyer and the group during a debriefing session. "They're seriously great actors."

[Last modified April 6, 2004, 01:35:40]

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