California School District Effectively Applies Lessons from Previous Wildfires

RUNNING SPRINGS, Calif. – Being prone to natural hazards, the Rim of the World School District (RIMSD) has experienced more than its fair share of weather-related emergencies during the past 15 years. This past experience was put to good use in October during the massive wildfires that affected so many schools, universities and hospitals in Southern California.

RIMSD is located in a mountainous region near Los Angeles, and during the outbreak of wildfires this fall, the district was threatened on its west and east ends. Despite this, RIMSD was able to safely evacuate all of its students, faculty and staff. An emergency messaging system that has the student database programmed into it was able to notify much of the community, students and parents before the children arrived at school. The implementation of this computer-generated notification system was prompted by another massive fire that affected the area four years ago.

Back-up Power Keeps Campuses Running in Emergencies

According to Bill Gibson, supervisor of maintenance, grounds and safety for RIMSD, officials at the district learned a lot from the 2003 event as well as other disasters. “We learned we needed to retrofit our campuses with emergency generators. At Rim High School, we have a generator that is capable of running the entire school and our maintenance, operations and transportation area, which is just adjacent to the school.”

Because Rim High was the command center for the fire fighting efforts in the area, this back-up power source came in handy when the electricity was disrupted. Engine companies from Georgia, Utah, Montana, Washington, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon were based at the school, and the campus was the central location where vehicles were maintained and fueled. Fire fighters ate their meals and showered at the campus as well.

The generators also allowed the district and fire personnel to keep communication lines open. “If you’re in a hazard prone area, it’s a good idea to have a couple of your schools equipped with those generators so you aren’t completely reliant on the power grid,” adds Gibson.

Another lesson learned from the 2003 fire was that an off-site center should be created at a location where there aren’t any (or at least fewer) hazards. This center should run a district’s operations, particularly when the community is evacuated. In RIMSD’s case, the San Bernardino Superintendent of Schools’ office, which is located off the mountain and miles away from the affected area, houses and maintains the district’s Web site, which provided pertinent information about the schools during the wildfires.

Districts Must Work With Other Agencies Before Disaster Strikes

In preparing for emergencies like the October wildfires, Gibson believes it is most important for campuses to interact with other community agencies on a regular basis. “Include all emergency response agencies: fire, police, civic response groups, the U.S. Forest Service,” says Gibson. “We try to meet once a month and discuss what resources we all have collectively. If you meet regularly, you know who those people are. You can have plans and plans and plans, but unless you know the folks you’re working with on a familiar level, it’s difficult to implement the plans.”

According to Bill Kelly, campus security officer at Rim High School, the planning and interaction definitely paid off. “Actually, there were more people here [during the fire] than probably our 1,600 students on a normal day,” he says. “It’s amazing they can coordinate all of that and get it all to happen as quickly as they did.”

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