West Penn Township police and school officials say they took a solid step forward in ensuring the safety of young schoolchildren Tuesday morning with a successful emergency preparedness drill that called for safe on-site evacuation of the school building.
The action, they said, will lead to a more formal standard operating plan to deal with emergencies.
The event was staged by West Penn Township police and school officials and included coordination with West Penn Fire Co. #1 and Penn Mahoning Ambulance Association.
According to Police Chief Brian Johnson, the multi-faceted drill provided valuable information "to establish a policy for the police department" so that protocol can be put in place. "It will go into effect during the next school session," Johnson explained.
Also included next year, Johnson said, will be a full off-site evacuation in which buses will be utilized to shuttle students to a prepared shelter, a safe haven to house and protect students in an unexpected event.
Multiple buses to be obtained quickly and that can transport 70 students a piece will figure into the deployment.
The steps are especially important in West Penn, Johnson says, due to location and geography.
"We're rural and out in the open," he says, explaining that buildings and shelters aren't as readily available in a rural setting as they are in a town or city.
On Tuesday, all 260 students in grades K-5 exited quickly and orderly.
"Every kid exited where they'd go during a fire drill," said Principal Steve Behr. "The police department is giving information on the safest way. We're not in a situation where they can walk to another building."
Behr said the drills are essential and held fairly frequently at the school.
"We do about nine drills a year," Behr indicated.
Following the drill, police and emergency responders met privately to discuss logistics and strategies. For instance, on-site and off-site secure locations for student safety have been identified and will be utilized if necessary. However, due to the sensitive nature of school security, those sites and locations cannot be divulged.
Also participating in the emergency evacuation drill were West Penn Officers Jason Lorah and Melissa Boyer; Donnie Hoppes and Valerie Coombe, president and vice president, respectively, Penn Mahoning Ambulance; and Clint Schock, assistant captain, West Penn Fire Co. #1, New Ringgold.
Boyer gave credit to the students and staff for a safe evacuation and indicated that the drill proved useful in terms of safety and police protocol.
"It was very impressive. I walked out and they were already there," said Boyer. The drill provided helpful information for consideration by police and the school, she said. "There were some points brought out."
As a result, police saw the drill as a valuable tool.
"We're pleased with how it went," said Lorah. "It gives us new ideas and better ideas. Our main goal was to watch the drill and how they do."
Lorah said the process eventually will lead to a more formal standard operating plan at police headquarters.
From a medical assistance and evacuation standpoint, Hoppes said the drills are vital to essential ambulance service.
"They allow us to be familiar with their plan and then we know where to stage the trucks in case of emergency," he explained.
West Penn Elementary is located between Routes 443 and 309, at 185 School Drive, New Ringgold. It is part of the Tamaqua Area School District.