Alan Walters’ Disaster Response Efforts Help a Community Stay Resilient
Campus Safety K-12 Director of the Year Alan Walters has helped Georgetown County Public School District stay resilient through floods, ice storms and hurricanes.
Alan Walters has a total of 17 years working as a law enforcement officer, where he earned awards in South Carolina like Deputy Sheriff of the Year (1992) and Law Enforcement Officer of the Year (1996). He has also taught as a professor, worked as a SWAT operator and served as a magistrate judge.
But its Walters’ accomplishments in his most recent career as the director of safety and risk management at Georgetown County School District (S.C.) that have earned him the distinction of Campus Safety’s K-12 Director of the Year.
Since joining Georgetown County School District in 2014, Walters has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments, particularly in the emergency management field. He has also worked to foster a culture of safety and preparedness throughout the district and county.
Those changes have proved invaluable for a community that has faced several disasters in recent years that have tested the capabilities—and the will— of everyone involved.
The District Identifies a Need
Walters joined Georgetown County School District in March of 2014 as the newly-created director of safety and risk management. Although Walters had served briefly as a school resource officer during his time in law enforcement, he admits transitioning to working for a school district was a bit of an adjustment.
“It was definitely a little bit of a culture shock coming from law enforcement,” he says. “To actually be part of a school district and see the business side of how a district functions, as far as making proposals and getting funds… I don’t want to use the word bureaucracy, but that’s kind of what it was.”
A few things helped Walters cut through the bureaucracy early on. One of the biggest factors was that he answered directly to the superintendent, an example Walters urged other school district executives to follow.
”You can’t bury your security director way down the table for negotiations,” Walters says. “My superintendent decided to send the message that he was making safety a priority, and that gives you an added layer of credibility.”
Although Walters knew he had a lot of work to do, he worked with district officials to establish clearly defined objectives to pursue, mainly in the fields of physical security and emergency operations. The fact that plans for major design renovations throughout the district were already underway, and were a big reason the district hired Walters in the first place, also helped him prioritize.
“If districts are adding someone to help with building security enhancements, look for someone with experience there,” Walters says. “[Georgetown County School District] didn’t have anyone like that, so when I came on, I was pointing things out that they hadn’t considered because I have a different perspective.”
Indeed, Walters’ perspective has helped the district enhance several security-related initiatives since he was hired.
Georgetown Enhances Access Control, Communications
With the ambitious access control project, district officials sought to harden the front entrances of all 20 of their schools. Over the course of 18 months, Walters supervised the $1.5 million project, which also included the installation of bullet-resistant glass and exterior surveillance cameras. Many of the entrances, built in the 1990s, also favored an open design, with large atriums right behind the front doors and unsecured cafeterias.
“As a former SWAT guy, I was looking at things like, ‘If I’m the bad guy, how do I defeat these protection measures?’” Walters says. “We had a piece of glass we were using, so we took it out to the gun range and shot it just to see what would happen. We put ballistic panels behind some the dry wall. The priority started at doors and locks and then video surveillance.”
Now visitors at schools in the district must be buzzed in to many buildings and walk past the front office, which is behind glass, before gaining access to the school.
“You can’t completely remove every vulnerability, that’s why they call it risk management not risk elimination,” Walters says. “You don’t want to turn your schools into prisons, but you want to do as much as you can.”
Another thing Walters noticed early on in his time at the district was that each school had its own radios, which varied in type and quality. This made radio communications between schools impossible.
Walters worked with a vendor to implement a new interoperable network, purchasing more than 200 radios that feature emergency buttons to broadcast over every district channel. The school district’s system is now the official backup system for the county in the event that the state radio system fails.
Walters has also worked to improve communications with students, parents and staff members. Before Walters joined the district, it used a traditional phone number to collect tips from students, using “See Something, Say Something” posters to raise awareness.
“I showed them to my sons and asked if they’d ever call, and they said, ‘Nobody uses phones to talk anymore dad,’” Walters remembers.
So he got the district to purchase a SchoolMessenger app that’s also featured on the district’s website. Through the app, people can report incidents as well as upload documents and pictures when making a report. Reports can be anonymous or include contact information.
The new security systems were just the beginning of Walters making his mark on the district.
Georgetown Bolsters Its Emergency Management Capabilities
One of the most important and consequential things Walters did was identify several weaknesses in the district’s existing Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs).
“They weren’t tied in with [the National Incident Management System], so we tried to get that aligned with the federal government and with the country EOP,” Walters says. “We also tried to simplify some of the existing plans, because most of these you don’t use very often and you can’t drill on them as much as you’d like.”
Walters said district officials continue to revise plans and are always looking to improve aspects like communication, family reunification and customization for each campus in the district.
“We’ve got some schools in densely populated neighborhoods, then others where there’s nothing around, so there’s no cookie cutter plan you can stick in a book and it fits all 20 of our schools,” he explains. “So we tried to make them broad enough so they’re a starting place in our district policy manual, but then we go into each school and tailor it to their needs.”
Another aspect of emergency preparedness Georgetown School District adopted was using safety checklists. The seven-page checklists provide school officials with a system to ensure things like signage, locks and lighting are working properly.
The district also created a standard response protocol for emergency communication, adopting the I Love You Guys foundation’s protocol after reviewing the systems that were available.
Perhaps the most important thing Walters did, however, was strengthen the district’s relationship with local emergency response agencies including the three nearby police departments, the sheriff’s department, fire and emergency medical service officials. Having worked for the local police agencies, Walters knew firsthand that there hadn’t been a lot of coordinated emergency planning between district officials and local law enforcement.
“If we had a mass casualty incident for instance, some of those people had never been in these schools or even knew where they were,” Walters says. “We wanted them to get a feel for the layout, and it’s good for us because they’ll spot things we didn’t. I’d hear fire officials talking about where they’d put certain equipment if there were an incident on campus, where they’d set up triage. I don’t think those conversations take place in a sterile room.”
In addition to familiarizing emergency responders with his schools, Walters made a point to introduce the county EOPs to district officials.
“I’m not sure how many districts have looked at their county’s emergency plans, but most counties have extensive plans and a whole emergency management department, so they cover everything from emergency shelters to food provisions,” Walters says. “These things affect school districts. Our district had been a user of emergency services, but we hadn’t provided anything in that direction.”
The importance of an improved relationship between the district and county was demonstrated right away, as Georgetown County found itself forced to overcome major weather incidents.
Georgetown School District Weathers the Storm
Even before the front entrance renovations project, Georgetown County Public Schools faced its first test with Walters in his new role. On one of his first days on the job, the coastal South Carolina area suffered from a major ice storm that caused significant damage to community and district buildings.
The subsequent recovery efforts gave Walters an opportunity to thoroughly evaluate the district’s emergency response capabilities and gave him the basis for ideas that led him to make the emergency management changes detailed above.
The next year, in October of 2015, came an even bigger test in the form of a major storm that meteorologists termed the “Thousand Year Flood.” For weeks, unprecedented water levels created hazards around most of the county and left some areas isolated for weeks.
Fortunately, in the year since the ice storm, the district and county response agencies had made huge strides in their relationship and emergency management capabilities. Walters began preparing for the storm by working with district officials to pre-position assets in order to quicken the response.
“We started thinking in a more proactive way,” he says. “We have a lot of rivers in our county, so if one section gets cut off, we need buses and trucks and things in those areas where they might be needed for the flood.”
By that time Walters also had a seat at the table as personnel from various county response agencies mapped out their responses.
“You have to learn to speak [emergency managers’] language,” Walters says. “We were engaged from the beginning with the flood, trying to do danger assessments and seeing what kind of support the district could provide.”
As everyone was about to find out, the district could provide quite a lot of support. As the extent of the flooding became apparent, Walters was able to help direct district resources to response efforts throughout the county.
The district was able to provide buildings for the Red Cross, the National Guard and county response agencies, where they distributed thousands of essential relief items like food and water. It also provided shelter and transportation for the members of the community.
“With the school buses, we ran seven straight days of evacuation routes,” Walters says. “We were using one of the schools as a special needs shelter, and another one for pets, because animals have to be in a separate shelter altogether. There are a lot of pieces and parts to it. We were out of school close to two weeks.”
The disruption was inevitable, but district officials did everything in their power to minimize it. In one small community that was devastated when it lost use of the only bridge that accessed the area, teachers were sent in by boat to conduct classes in church.
“I’ll always remember riding in a Jon boat down a highway because the highway was eight feet under water,” Walters says.
Then last year, damage from Hurricane Matthew caused the district to close school for eight days. But by that time Georgetown County Public Schools had completed the transformation from a user of emergency services to a provider of emergency services.
Walters worked for ten straight days in a leadership position with the county emergency management director and other local officials arranging evacuations and shelters, setting up recovery sites at schools and providing food and water to county residents.
“For [Hurricane Mathew] we were able to use some of the things we learned in the Thousand Year Flood because we knew what was potentially coming,” Walters says. “At that point I was working in the county Emergency Operations Center (EOC), so if needs developed I could jump in and offer what we had.”
Walters Keep an Eye Toward Improvement
Despite the school district’s proven record of effective emergency response procedures, Walters has not stopped trying to strengthen its capabilities. In fact, Walters says winning awards like Campus Safety’s Director of the Year is a good opportunity for self-reflection and to assess his programs.
A recent story epitomizes Walters’ determined attitude toward improvement. After securing some grant money, he recently purchased a sand bagging machine for the district. He reasoned the machines could fill up to 400 bags an hour and could prove indispensable in certain storm or flooding circumstances. He also says some people in the area snickered at the purchase.
“It’s not something you need often, but when you need it, you really need it,” Walters said of the machine.
Sure enough, when the remnants of this year’s hurricanes struck Georgetown County, city and county officials were fighting over who could borrow the machine first. It was just the latest example of Walters’ emergency planning paying off.
It’s unfortunate that Georgetown County has dealt with so many incidents. But at least with officials like Walters, the community can rest easy knowing it’s in good hands.