October 7, 2013

Emergency radios head to Kennebec County schools

The effort appears to be the first of its kind in Maine.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — School officials will be able to communicate directly with first responders in emergencies under a program officials say could provide new radios to every school in Kennebec County within six months.

The program looks to be first of its kind in Maine.

Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said he’s never heard of a county-wide plan to put so many radios in schools in the state.

The program was first rolled out at Regional School Unit 11, the Gardiner-based school district also serving West Gardiner, Pittston and Randolph, which received radios at its seven schools and superintendent’s office late last month.

Kennebec County Emergency Management Agency planner Art True said the radios will be able to operate on emergency frequencies.

If affected by an emergency, schools will have to initially call 911, but once authorities respond, those inside the building would be able to talk directly to police or firefighters on their frequencies.

That cuts out the middleman in emergency situations: 911 dispatchers are busy directing authorities, so relaying messages from schools to police can be a hassle, said Art Churchill, head of operations for the county EMA.

Getting information from inside the building would be the most reliable way for police to know what’s happening, he said.

In any emergency, “We always come back to the same problem,” Churchill said. “Communications.”

Churchill said the county spent $4,500 in federal grant money administered by the state to buy enough radios for each superintendent’s office and school in Kennebec County, including superintendent offices in other counties that serve Kennebec County schools, such as offices in Fairfield, Sabattus and Somerville.

The radios won’t cost districts anything, and the county bought back-up radios for their own purposes as well.

Under the county’s plan, the school radios will be kept in principals’ offices to ensure that one person is using it and everyone in the school knows where it is.

RSU 11 was the first school to get radios because it has worked with the county to conform its emergency-response plan to state standards, True said. All county schools have plans, he said, but theirs followed state guidelines closest.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency provides schools with a checklist asking questions that gauge schools’ emergency preparedness, seeking systems for accounting of students, releasing them to parents, regular drills and comprehensive involvement of staff in creating response plans.

True said Winthrop and Maranacook schools should receive radios within two months, and he hopes to get radios into all county schools in six months.

While putting radios in schools – essentially making educators first responders – conjures images of school shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., last year, it also will have an everyday impact.

Churchill said the radios will be able to operate on non-emergency frequencies, allowing school administrators to talk to their own employees if they choose to.

Patricia Hopkins, RSU 11’s superintendent, said there was a power outage at one school last year that shut down phone lines. Cellphones don’t work well at River View Community School in rural South Gardiner, she said.

“We’re very appreciative of this gift,” Hopkins said. “It will be beneficial in an emergency and it will improve our communications between buildings.”

McAleer, the state EMA head, said while the radios to be given to schools are cheaper and have less range than the ones first responders use, they have the ability to change schools’ emergency plans for the better.

“I think it’s an interesting approach,” he said. “It’s a good compromise between having nothing and having a more robust communication network.”

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@centralmaine.com

 

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