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Mon, Oct. 14

Editorial: Communicating emergency situations easier said than done

The ideal outcome with any gun-on-school-campus situation is 100% student safety.

That was achieved during last week’s incident at Sedona Red Rock Junior-Senior High School.

No one was hurt. The ultimate positive outcome was achieved.

Now, it’s only natural for school and police officials to review and grade themselves on the protocols employed during this incident.

Typically in these situations, the most common complaint you will hear is the manner in which the situation was communicated to parents and the community.

Especially in the era of social media, where everyone is an expert, you can expect a lot of criticism in the manner police and/or school officials kept the public informed about what was going on.

With the incident in Sedona, credit the police department with a prompt and concise timeline of what transpired in the approximate one-hour lockdown of the school.

The flip side is the information prompted as many questions as it provided answers.

As one of our readers emphasized on social media, did the person ultimately arrested actually show up on campus? Did he have a gun? It was reported that police received a call that a former student was on campus and possessed a weapon, but it was later determined the caller provided inaccurate information.

Some of the dots were later connected Sunday when the Sedona school administration sent an email to parents that brought some clarity to what transpired last Thursday.

In the interim, social media pundits ran wild with speculation.

It’s first important to realize that here in the Verde Valley, there is only one police agency – the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office – that employs a full-time professionally trained public information officer.

The rest of the municipal police departments in the Verde Valley have either administrative officers or assistants handle community and media relations. It is not their primary job responsibility.

Further, police departments are like many workplaces today. They are understaffed and their employees are overworked. Those with community and media relations responsibilities work it into the juggling act of all the other job tasks they have on their plate at the moment.

In other words, they do the best they can. In a situation that involves a report of a gun on a school campus, they are doing the best they can in a pressure cooker environment.

Second, these situations always have the inherent conflict of who exactly is in control of providing information to the community: the school or the police?

Friday, in the aftermath of the Thursday situation in Sedona, Mingus Union Superintendent Mike Westcott was busy reviewing his own school’s emergency protocols. Mingus uses a robo-call process to alert parents that the school is in an emergency situation. Beyond that, he admitted, there is a gray area between whether school officials or the police have the lead role in communicating what is going on. School officials desire to send informative but calming messages to parents and the community. That approach is often in conflict with the police mantra of “potential crime scene” or “investigation in process.”

Last year, there was a false report of a student having a gun in a backpack at the Cottonwood Community School. In the end, it was an exercise in better safe than sorry.

Ironically, while this situation was developing, Cottonwood-Oak Creek Superintendent Steve King was on a plane en route to a conference on emergency protocols. When his phone was back in service, he had an avalanche of text messages and missed calls. Fortunately, his emergency was only a false alarm.

The ensuing conference, though, could not have come at a more perfect time. The No. 1 takeaway King brought back to the Verde Valley was that any kind of regular communication in such an emergency is better than long information gaps.

He describes it as the “15-minute rule.” Every 15 minutes, you update the public through local media, your own social media and whatever other communication modalities are at your disposal.

“Even if it is ‘there is no new information to share,’ that is better than saying nothing,” King explained. “It has a calming effect.”

Over the past several months, King has been working with the Cottonwood Police Department, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office and all other area first-responding agencies to establish communication protocols during such emergencies.

He envisions himself, or designated representative, assuming the public information officer role in cooperation with the police or emergency services incident commander.

His ultimate goal is to get informative, updated information out to the community every 15 minutes.

He wants to keep the dots connected.

And in the process, douse the flames of social media speculation.

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