Howard safety organization teaches community response to active assailant

Domestic terrorism is no longer limited to firearms, according to U.S. Secret Service employee Lois Blevins, so society must know how to respond quickly and appropriately in the event of an active assailant.

As founder and president of the National Center for Citizen Safety, the Ellicott City resident has made it her duty to teach people how fast and effective decision-making can safe lives in a moment of terror.

The nonprofit organization, also known as NCCSafe, this month unveiled its community workshops that are held to spread education and public awareness of emergency preparedness in potentially life-threatening situations. More than 25 Howard County residents, including teachers and teens, attended the first workshop at the Miller Branch library on Feb. 7 to learn the do's and don'ts citizens.

On Feb. 19, Blevins and her volunteers continued their A.C.T. promotion during a Hoops 4 Hope for a Safer America fundraiser at Glory Days Grill in Ellicott City. Volunteers discussed proper domestic terrorism and active assailants responses with the community, while watching the University of Maryland men's basketball game.

A silent auction, cash bar and complimentary game time appetizers were also included in the event.

Since the organization was founded in 2013, Blevins and her team of volunteers and interns have worked in Howard and neighboring counties to promote how to react in situations or disaster. Blevins said she uses recent events – which includes the mass shootings at Columbine High School in Littletown, Col., in 1999 and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in 2007 – as tools to review what went right and wrong. Her instructions follow what she calls A.C.T.: assess, cover yourself and take action.

In addition to guns, Blevins said assailants use anything from knives to vehicles to harm or kill others. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's 2014 active shooter analysis report states that 45.6 percent of incidents between 2003 and 2013 happened in businesses, while 24.4 percent of incidents happened in schools during that period.

On the FBI website, the latest report states that 231 people were impacted by an active assailant in the U.S. between 2014 and 2015, with 92 killed and 139 wounded.

"Forty out of the 50 states have been affected [by an active shooter] and that's huge," Blevins said. "We want to take a human response and convert it from stress and fear to a conditioned response."

If an active assailant is present, the first step is to assess the situation, Blevins said, by answering questions like what do you see, hear and smell? Where and what is the threat? Once determined, people must decide how to cover themselves, either running if there's a nearby exit, hiding if there's no time to run or fighting if confronted by the assailant. Then, they should take action and alert the authorities, she said.

In her workshop, Blevins defines the differences between a lockdown and shelter-in-place. To lockdown, individuals stay in one place by securing themselves in a room, turning off lights and barricading the entryway. Lockdowns are used for threats located inside or outside of a building. Shelter-in-place is typically used when there's an atmospheric threat or contamination, she said, such as chemical, biological or radiological hazards; or hurricanes or tornadoes.

A.C.T. in schools

Blevins said a common misconception in the community, particularly in school systems nationwide, is that lockdown is "the only option" when there's an active assailant. She said the FBI analysis of the Columbine High School shooting showed that students inside the school's library had four minutes to escape before the shooter entered the room.

"The further you take cover, the better. Distance is your friend," she said.

In the Howard County school system, School Improvement and Administration Executive Director Frank Eastham said the type of emergency determines whether the school has a lockdown or modified lockdown. Each of the county's 76 schools has an emergency operation plan.

"We have actions that are less intrusive and actions that are more significant and restrict movement in the schools," said Eastham, the former principal of Oakland Mills High School.

A modified lockdown, he said, would entail locking all building entrances, keeping students inside and continuing the normal routine.

Eastham said state law prohibits the school system from sharing specific procedures followed in a lockdown; however, all emergency plans are amended every summer and submitted to the school system's safety, environment and risk management office for review, feedback and further amendments.

Terry Street, manager of the safety, environment and risk management office, said Howard schools follow the Department of Homeland Security guidelines for responding to an active shooter – the driving force behind Blevins' A.C.T.

Eastham said Code of Maryland Regulations, also known as COMAR, require schools to have 10 fire drills throughout the year, while administrators practice shelter-in-place or drop-cover-hold; the latter in response to an earthquake.

At the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, Executive Director of School Safety Edward Clarke said all 24 public school districts in the state also have six emergency preparedness drills that are practiced throughout the school year, including lockdown drills; evacuation drills; reverse evacuation drill if the schools are outside; shelter-in-place; severe weather; duck-cover-hold; and bus evacuation.

An active shooter drill is among the drills, Clarke said, as each school superintendent submits a crisis and emergency preparedness plan to the state Department of Education.

"The tragedy at Columbine really refocused the efforts to better prepare for an active shooter in public schools across the United States," said Clarke, a retired police captain in Montgomery County. "Law enforcement changed their approach as well. Prior to Columbine, the initial process for responding was law enforcement would contain the situation and wait for the SWAT teams before making entry."

Now, Blevins added, officers are told to "run to the gun."

"Any threats or incidents that have occurred are discussed to determine if other school systems need to be prepared," Eastham said. "Unfortunately, the scary clown scam that was going around [last October] was a part of those discussions."

Clown sightings and threats began in Greenville, S.C., in early August and spread across more than 40 states, with reports of people in clown makeup and attire near wooded areas, homes and schools.

Howard school spokesman John White said parents are informed of incidents via text and email. According to the school system's website, other building safety features include controlled building entry, automated visitor management systems and close collaboration with the Howard County Police Department.

Lynn McCawley, a spokeswoman for Prince George's County Public Schools, said they follow an administrative procedure for crisis response, with a designated school crisis team, county crisis coordinator and central office crisis team.

"If it impacts more than one school, we expand the procedure to fit whatever situation," she said. "When we have a larger situation, you would have to design the procedure based on the event, but tweak it."

Once the crisis has been verified, McCawley said, administrators are required to contact all three parties as well as the county's Department of Security Services and 911. But, not all teachers feel this is always the best response.

At her school in Prince George's County, kindergarten teacher Elsie Vargas said staff say they would revert to "hiding in the corner or the bathroom" if an active assailant was nearby. After attending Blevins' workshop earlier this month, the Ellicott City resident said she wants to take a defense class and develop her own classroom plan.

"It is so common nowadays and it's really scary," Vargas said. "You have to watch out for yourself and really be aware of your surroundings. [My classroom is] on the first floor, so if I did let [my students] go out the window, they wouldn't be injured. That would be a consideration of mine."

Retired Ellicott City resident Lorraine Fedder, who also attended the workshop, said she was familiar with some of Blevins' information, but rarely saw it implemented in the workplace.

"I think it's very logical," Fedder said. "The more you learn about how to stay safe, hopefully your chances of surviving are better."

NCCSafe volunteer Kayla Wumer said it's crucial that these situations are discussed and practiced in the workplace and school systems, where everyone can work together.

"It's not a message everyone knows about because they've heard stories of these active assailant situations and first responder responses, but they haven't heard of, 'How do I react in this situation?'" Wumer said. "You can rely on others to help you or direct you. It's really a group learning experience."

As the organization broadens its audience, Blevins said she hopes schools statewide will implement active assailant drills to better inform teachers, staff and students.

"What I'm driving home here is that you have to be prepared. It is going to possibly happen in your world along your daily life."

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