A deliberate attack, a hostage situation or even a carbon monoxide leak could lead to mass casualties at a number of locations in Martins Ferry, so local school officials met with representatives of city and county agencies this week to lay out plans to deal with any of those potential hazards.
Those gathered at East Ohio Regional Hospital on Thursday included Police Chief John McFarland, Belmont County Sheriff Dave Lucas, city schools Superintendent Dirk Fitch, fire department members, hospital personnel, a county commissioner and 911 Director Bryan Minder.
Fire Chiefs Jack Regis and Michael Reese led the meeting.
They said the December school shooting in Connecticut motivated them to reach out and facilitate collaboration among local and county offices. The aim is to create a plan to deal with such a worst-case scenario.
Regis said participating entities will share their own plans and procedures and look at ways they could cooperate when called upon to initiate them.
"We're very impressed with the turnout," he said, noting that schools and school safety would be the primary focus of the meetings, which are expected to continue. "The specific intent of tonight is to form a response to the schools, but in a broader sense we could use this plan to kind of develop (plans) for our high rises if something were to happen there."
Regis added that schools already are required by the state to have emergency response plans in place.
Regis said plans developed during the sessions would cover any type of mass casualty incident - "anything that could require a multi-jurisdictional response, command issues, many victims and patients."
Regis cited smooth communication among agencies as the first issue to be scrutinized. He noted that in the event of an emergency, firefighters and EMTs would rush straight to the scene, which could complicate a dangerous situation should they arrive before police.
He said responders would need to establish a staging area where they could meet and wait for law enforcement to declare a mass casualty site secure. They would also have to decide when to contact the hospital to activate its emergency plan.
McFarland added that while the schools may have submitted their floor plans and procedures to the attorney general's office, the information may not have been shared with local police and emergency personnel. He stressed the need for schools to open direct channels of communication with local authorities.
Fitch had the district's floor plans and procedures on hand.
During a separate interview, he cited the importance of teamwork among various agencies, adding that awareness of each other's procedures could be vital during a mass casualty event.
"The best part of this meeting today is we all get to meet face to face and we can all get on the same page," he said.
Principal Mary Carolyn Nichelson of St. Mary Central added that security has been an issue officials had been addressing at her building even before the Connecticut shooting. The process of upgrading the doors for added security has begun.
But she said it is important to make the improvements without alarming the children.
Lucas approved of the cooperative initiative and cited the value of taking a proactive and aggressive stance in preparing for such emergencies.
Regis added that he hopes to see mock disaster scenarios played out during the next school year if possible.