PITTSFIELD -- About 100 school, law enforcement and public safety officials from Western Massachusetts and the state are gathered in Pittsfield to make a plan on how to handle a major school emergency.
A gathering of this kind would not have occurred a decade ago, according to public safety officials, but recent mass school shootings like Newtown have forced them to reevaluate.
"Educators had one way of thinking. [Local law enforcement] had another way of responding to things. And 10 years ago, there never would have been any state police in the room," said Major Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office. Grady is the chairman of the Western Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council, one of four such groups in Massachusetts.
"Now there's a greater acknowledgment of no matter how big or small [of an operation] you are, you still need other people to help you when the big stuff happens," Grady said.
"It can be a bigger challenge otherwise. Consistency in the process of response is important," said State Police Lt. William C. Blackmer Jr., the commander at the Cheshire barracks.
School, police, fire and safety personnel from Berkshire County and the Pioneer Valley gathered on Wednesday for the first of a two-day school emergency planning course, which is being held at Miss Hall's School. The course is presented by the Training and Exercise Unit of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Trooper Andrew Canata, the school emergency planning resource officer for the Cheshire barracks, said a similar summit on school emergency preparedness for major incidents was held in the area for the first time in 2009, at Berkshire Community College. Afterward, Canata said he heard many requests across schools and public safety departments seeking to share information and resources.
"This [event] is about trying to keep up with lessons learned and best strategies," Canata said.
"By building relationships with each other and a master plan, the process of doing this is more successful," said Pittsfield resident Patrick Carnevale, who serves as director for MEMA in the Worcester area.
During the two training days, topics include reasons for emergency planning in schools, how to codify each part of the plan, how to choose members for a planning team, finding resources, training and exercising the school emergency plan.
A representative from the state school department said that each plan for each school will be unique to the school's size, number of buildings, and grade levels, among other things.
"You have to make order out of chaos," said Robert Zalewski, a presenter on the MEMA course who is also the deputy chief of the Chelsea Fire Department.
In a separate interview regarding school safety, Julia Bowen, executive director of the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School in Adams, said planning and building strong relationships with students, staff and parents are among the best tools schools can have for addressing safety and security. She said her school regularly reviews areas like its bullying policy, safety and lockdown drills.
"Even with a horrible tragedy like [the shooting] in Newtown, Conn., it sounds like the teachers saved many lives because they knew what to do," Bowen said.
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