School Climate & Safety

Schools Near High-Risk Sites Update Safety Plans

By Rhea R. Borja — November 21, 2001 7 min read
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The massive Millstone Nuclear Power Station, New England’s largest power-generating complex, sits at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, within 10 miles of eight school districts.

After the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, federal officials issued warnings that the nation’s 103 nuclear-power plants and eight chemical-weapons depots were potential targets for such terrorism. In some districts near sites such as Millstone, upgrades to school safety and evacuation plans have jumped to the top of administrators’ to-do lists.

Connecticut’s Waterford school district, for instance, which is within 10 miles of the Millstone complex, has had a thorough safety plan for years, Superintendent Randall Collins says. But he wants an even better plan in this time of heightened uncertainty.

To set up a faster evacuation process, the 3,100-student district is now parking five school buses next to each of the three elementary schools that are closest to the plant. Previously, the buses were parked several miles away. Some teachers and staff members will learn how to drive the buses in case the system’s regular drivers aren’t available.

In another safety measure adopted after Sept. 11, Waterford school employees will wear identification badges. Pupils in kindergarten through 5th grade will also have identification cards, color-coded by grade level and fashioned with breakaway cords for safety.

What’s more, Mr. Collins sent a two-page letter to parents this month explaining evacuation procedures, and he issued a memo on safety guidelines for all school employees. He also asked the school employees to draw up personal family-safety plans in case of an evacuation.

“You don’t want to overly alarm people, but you want them to know you have a plan,” he said. “As soon as they realize we do, they’re relieved. Before Sept. 11, we had a plan that we never expected to use. After September 11, we have one we hope we don’t have to use, but will have ready.”

Well-Prepared in Umatilla

While some school districts have updated or expanded their safety plans since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, officials at many schools near sites such as nuclear- power stations and chemical-munitions depots say they continually review and fine-tune their safety plans and already feel amply prepared.

That’s the case in Umatilla, Ore.

The 1,300-student school system in the rural north-central Oregon town stands less than 10 miles from a U.S. Army depot housing 12 percent of the nation’s nearly 30,000 tons of chemical weapons.

And about 30 miles from the school district sits the sprawling Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produces plutonium, a primary atomic-weapons fuel.

But Bob Wimberly, the principal of Clara Brownell Middle School in Umatilla, says that the school district is well prepared for an emergency, and that the community feels the same way.

Umatilla residents receive updated information from local officials on what to do if a chemical or nuclear accident occurs. Several times a year, school and local emergency personnel practice safety drills, which are regularly monitored by federal officials.

In fact, Mr. Wimberly says he is more afraid of a toxic spill on the nearby interstate by chemical-carrying trucks than he is of an accident or terrorist attack at the munitions depot.

Even after Sept. 11, he said, school officials aren’t overly concerned about the possibility of terrorist attacks. “Everybody’s more aware, but they’re not looking over their shoulders,” he said. “We haven’t had a single call from a parent.”

In the case of a toxic spill, students and staff members at the district’s three schools can retreat into “overpressurization” units, large rooms such as a gymnasium that can be sealed off to keep toxic air out.

After those rooms are sealed, students and employees can eat packaged, ready-to-eat meals that are stored in the schools. A power generator is available to provide light at each school, and blankets and even board games are stored for such an emergency.

If Umatilla students must be evacuated, administrators expect to adhere to a specific and much-reviewed plan that shuttles students to an already-designated safe site at least 10 miles away.

“We haven’t done anything differently” since Sept. 11, said district Superintendent Brian Say.

Officials of Florida’s St. Lucie County public schools also say they’re ready for action. The 30,400-student system lies within 10 miles of a Florida Power & Light nuclear-power plant, one of two in the state.

David Morris, the district’s security director, said the county and the district have been refining their safety plans since the plant’s opening in the mid-1970s.

The school district’s evacuation plan, for example, is so specific that it maps an evacuation route so school bus drivers need only make right turns, which are quicker than left turns because drivers don’t have to watch for traffic going both ways.

Both school and county officials go through a four- to eight-hour refresher course every year on how the power plant works, how schools should be evacuated, and other procedures, such as how to use a Geiger counter, which measures radiation particles on everything from people to school buses.

Every school security officer in St. Lucie County also carries and knows how to use a dosimeter, a pen-size tool that measures radiation exposure.

The only thing school officials have done to amend their safety plans since Sept. 11 was to update their employee-contact lists, Mr. Morris said.

“If it happened right now, we’d be ready to go,” he said of a potential emergency. “Everybody knows what their job responsibility is.”

Some of Alabama’s Calhoun County schools lie within four miles of the Anniston Army Depot, which houses 7 percent of the federal government’s chemical stockpile. Consequently, officials are building overpressurization units at each of the 9,300-student system’s 17 schools.

But they’re more concerned about the health risks of the depot’s incineration of its chemical weapons than a large- scale terrorist attack, said Mike Fincher, the Calhoun County district’s director of safety and security.

“We’ve lived with this for a number of years,” he said. “We don’t feel threatened at this time, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t cautious.”

‘It’s a Balancing Act’

Such safety precautions are exactly what all schools should be taking, especially those located near nuclear-power plants, chemical depots, or similar sites, said an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington. The agency monitors and assesses state evacuation, containment, and other chemical- and radiological-safety procedures along with the Army and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“It’s a good idea to be aware of what [schools] have to do without even having to think about it,” said Don Jacks, a FEMA spokesman. “Know who you’re going to call, who you’re going to work with beforehand. An emergency is not the time to exchange business cards.”

Schools near potentially high-risk facilities may be more prepared than others, but districts in general are trying to figure out whether their crisis plans are adequate, given the increased awareness of possible threats, said Kenneth Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm.

“Administrators are trying to do a reality check with what they have, and at the same time reassure parents and the community that their schools are safe,” he said. “It’s a balancing act. Are they doing enough? The reality is, most of them are.”

The Russellville school system in south-central Arkansas sits less than 10 miles from the Arkansas Nuclear One power plant. One school, London Elementary, is just two miles from the plant.

School administrators in the 5,200-student district say they’ve always kept their safety plans updated. Before Sept. 11, they had already streamlined their communications plans to use cellphones in case regular phone lines aren’t working, and the district has equipped all of its buses with two- way radios, Superintendent Danny H. Taylor said.

But since the terrorist attacks, he and other officials have scrutinized the district’s crisis plan even more closely. One thing they want to do in case of a catastrophe is quicken their evacuation plans by parking more school buses on school grounds and using faculty cars to help move students as fast as possible.

Mr. Taylor emphasized, though, that he feels confident about the district’s emergency- response system, and that he doesn’t plan a major overhaul.

“We’re not running scared, just trying to plan,” he said. “No one is panicking.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Near High-Risk Sites Update Safety Plans

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