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Bomb threat in 2016 sparks emergency management upgrades at Berlin schools



February 22, 2017
BERLIN Berlin Public school officials are working with the police, Homeland Security, teachers, students and parents on tightening up the emergency management policy. A bomb threat last year directed at Berlin Middle School prompted action to revise the plans and policy when dealing with emergency hostile situations including bomb threats or active shooter incidents.

At a City Council work session last Monday, SAU Superintendent Corinne Cascadden reported to the council that the school board reviewed the emergency management policy.

"It became apparent to the schools when there was a bomb threat last fall that parents didn't know what to do," said Cascadden according to the minutes report.

She said that parents have since been informed of the management procedures in the case of an emergency.

"The incident also served to highlight flaws in the procedure which have since been worked on," she added.

She said that an alternative emergency site to direct and assemble students to during an incident had not been planned but now am undisclosed designated site has since been established. The first plan for evacuation is to have the students transport to another school.

Last year at 10:40 a.m. on May 23, the office manager at the school received a message of a bomb in the building. The voice in the message was robotic. Berlin police and emergency responders quickly arrived at the scene and about 500 students, faculty and staff were successfully evacuated. After police swept and evaluated the building it was determined that there wasn't a bomb. However, for extra precaution, state police were called in with a k9 unit to further evaluate the building. During that process, students walked or were bused to the high school, where they ate lunch in the cafeteria. By 2:05 p.m., after it was determined safe, the students were back in the school.

The Fire Department and Berlin EMS had responded within minutes.

"The school handled it spectacularly well," said Chris Dubey of Berlin EMS who arrived on the scene.

"All of the kids were out of the building and lined up in an orderly manner within the minutes it took for us to get there. It was very impressive," he said.

Cascadden also praised the school staff and the responders.

Parents were alarmed once they received the report. A taped automated message was sent to parents to inform them of the threat, but a glitch in the system sent a different message of a two-hour delay. The IT director said that the glitch may have occurred due to an overload of calls statewide that could have faulted the system. Parents were allowed to pick up their children after signing a form.

Ironically, the Berlin High Emergency Response Team was scheduled to conduct a "tabletop exercise" the next day with Homeland Security and Emergency Management and other law enforcement agencies to exercise preparedness in the case of bomb threats.

"It certainly made this exercise very relevant," said Roland Pinette, head of the BHS Emergency Response Team.

Similar reports of bomb threats in the form of computerized messages came in at least four other schools including Nashua, Keene, Londonderry and Portsmouth, but it wasn't limited to just New Hampshire. There were also similar reports from Massachusetts, Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, Utah and Wisconsin. Also, about two dozen calls were reported in the United Kingdom.

Federal investigators and police teamed up to search for the sources of the calls, but due to the high-tech disguises that hoaxers use, it is difficult to trace the sources.

A number of measures have since been taken to upgrade the emergency system. A Homeland Security grant helped the schools finance a card swipe system at school entrances. The system gives administration the ability to set times that allow personnel to enter the building.

Through other grant funding, school staff has been trained with Active Shooter Response Training in a practice known as ALICE. The sequence of actions in ALICE is alert, lockdown, inform, counter by creating noise and evacuate. Teachers and students have practiced ALICE in a classroom exercise in a scenario involving an intruder.

Entrances are locked and security cameras have been installed in all schools and school buses.

All classrooms have two-way radios that are in security buckets and ready-to-use in emergencies.

A Copysync911 program allows every teacher and office to have direct contact with the Police Department.

School officials urge that parents should notify the schools of any changes in phone numbers and contact information.

Councilor Michael Rozek commended the schools for being "proactive."

Councilor Roland Theberge asked Cascadden what teachers would have for self defense during an active shooter situation and she replied that they only had what is in the classrooms.

Mayor Paul Grenier recommended that additional exercises should be practiced "so that everybody knows what to do."

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