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Tailoring critical incident response templates for educational stakeholders

A Niagara Regional Police partnership garners a game-changing database of school safety plans


June 25, 2019
By Robin Bleich
Officer Robin is explaining her badge to a group of students. Photo: Robin Bleich

It is time to stop reinventing the wheel and start sharing what works with respect to critical incident response. The Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS) is celebrating 10 years of its School Police Emergency Action Response (SPEAR) program, an endeavor that continues to be shared and celebrated internationally for its all-encompassing approach to critical infrastructure safety within the educational sector.

In light of predated, recent and future occurrences of school violence, SPEAR was developed as part of an emergency preparedness business continuity practice to assist with essential emergency response systems. SPEAR establishes a risk-based approach for strengthening the resiliency of Niagara Region’s educational facilities and all public safety personnel. Moreover, the program represents an artery that encourages open and healthy school safety dialogue, which allows for the sharing of critical information.

SPEAR made its debut at the 2016 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Annual Conference in San Diego, Cali. With over 15,000 in attendance, SPEAR landed on the “Leadership” track and received 100 per cent positive feedback from its attendees.

Since the international introduction, SPEAR gained traction within policing communities across the globe and the process of information sharing began. Police officers from Germany, the United States and Canada continue to request information on the program.

Mission

SPEAR’s project mission and primary focus is to provide police, fire, medical responders and schools with a database of school safety plans. The plans provide emergency service responders with critical decision-making options by illustrating pre-determined school site management and tactical information for evacuations.

SPEAR does not avert or eliminate potential threats; it assists in efficient resource allocation and time management skillsets. SPEAR’s application is not limited to high risk/low frequency incidents; its design is intuitive for any emergency involving schools. SPEAR is used for:

• aggressive/hostile threats within a school
• natural disasters
• fires
• bomb threats
• CBRNE (chemical-, biological-, radiological-, nuclear-, and explosive-specific) hazards
• missing children

The design

SPEAR demonstrates geographical resiliency. For example, Niagara Region has about 1,850 square kilometres of land spread across 12 municipalities and surrounded by approximately 3,885 square kilometres of international bodies of water. Niagara Region is home to about 400,000 residents, while hosting about two million visitors annually.

The Niagara Region has exceptional water systems: rivers, canals, creeks, hydro station – not to mention the Niagara Falls. We have beautiful escarpments that are part of some the school’s landscaping. Moreover, Niagara possesses schools in both rural and suburb locations, making some of the evacuation planning a challenge.

Nonetheless, SPEAR adapts, overcomes, and achieves its purpose despite all of the unique geographical features of this beautiful region. The resiliency of the program allows for updates to happen as frequent as necessary.

Any agency can adopt the program and implement its design as a result of this resiliency – its design is also transferable to other critical infrastructure partners such as: government, transportation, manufacturing, energy and utilities, and communication technology locations.

SPEAR has three components to its program infrastructure:

• GIS (Geographic Information System) maps
• SPEAR Edit
• SPEAR Access System (SAS)

SPEAR Edit is a secure online data entry system, which allows our educational partners to login and update their school portfolios in real-time. It provides police with intimate infrastructure knowledge that is essential for the security and safety of school staff and the students. The SAS allows police officers to gain access inside the schools with the use of encrypted keys, swipe cards and codes that are strategically placed across the region.

The response plans are tailored to meet the needs of every school; no two plans are alike.

SPEAR currently oversees 219 schools across the region’s 12 municipalities. Each school is visited by an officer who is trained in tactical analyses and experienced in SPEAR plan development. A site analysis of each school and the surrounding area is completed, including the gathering of tactical information. All tactical information is then assessed and correlated, creating a unique and individual SPEAR safety plan. The GIS maps are used to capture the tactical data for responding emergency personnel. Each location has a minimum of five maps focusing on the following information:

• Front Identification GIS Map
• 5m – Entrances GIS Map
• 220m – Approach Routes GIS Map
• 500m – Traffic Control GIS Map
• 650m Evacuation GIS Map

Emergency personnel have access to SPEAR electronically; in-house or online from their mobile data terminals (MDTs).

Valued partnerships

A multi-faceted threat assessment approach is a school’s first proactive measure in creating and maintaining an environment where all vocational members feel safe. The primary purpose is to identify indicators that suggest when a student or situation may be moving along a pathway to violence and to then identify how to intervene to decrease risk, prevent injury to self and/or others, and develop an appropriate management plan.

The NRPS has developed and maintained 29 successful working partnerships with our educational stakeholders; in an effort to provide cost-efficient measures for its members and student population for the 219 schools. Crime prevention is a key component of community mobilization and strong community partnerships are an essential element of any crime reduction strategy.

“The SPEAR program is an example of the opportunities and benefits of bringing our partners together in advance of a potential crisis situation to ensure we are working instep and all on the same page to ensure the safety of some of the most vulnerable members of our society – our children,” says Chief Bryan MacCulloch, NRPS. “By proactively engaging our partners, we are ensuring that the proper measures are put in place for when they will be needed most.”

As SPEAR continues to develop, we recognize the benefits of tailoring a programmable template for interested agencies to implement. Reinventing the wheel creates unknown and unnecessary risks; education is prevention and NRPS’ dedication to prevention is within its partnerships.

Robin Bleich is a 13-year police officer with the Niagara Regional Police Service. She is the Chairperson of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Crime Prevention Committee and is preparing to begin her master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management. She can be contacted at robin.bleich@niagarapolice.ca.