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October 25, 2020

Safety drills ongoing at Gonzales schools

District tests efforts to keep students safe

GONZALES — Gonzales schools are undergoing continuous safety drills this school year, with the most recent being a fire drill on Jan. 14.

The drills mix in preparedness for different types of emergencies, from evacuations for fire to how to react to an active shooter on campus. The drills are done in coordination with local fire and police departments to have response times as fast as possible in the event of a real emergency.

“The evacuation went smoothly,” said Trini Zavala, MOT supervisor for the Gonzales Unified School District, of the recent drill. “The issue was when we were doing the head count.”

Zavala explained the counts once everyone is evacuated need to match attendance, which can be complicated by changes; for instance, a student leaving to go to a doctor’s appointment.

“Whoever is doing the head count might not know that student left early,” he said. “That’s the part we need to be precise and accurate about.”

The analyzing of head count data from the fire drill is part of the district’s efforts to make sure every student is accounted for in an emergency, which includes other data, such as response times and evacuation times.

“Every result, we save it,” Zavala said. “We do the due diligence of what areas we need to improve on.”

Also included are equipment inspections to ensure there are no breakdowns. In the case of a fire drill, a staff member pulls a fire alarm after the emergency teams and dispatch agencies have been contacted, so that they can monitor the timing and response.

“That tells us whether the system is working properly, what areas we don’t hear, what areas need to improve on, horns or speakers,” Zavala said.

“We don’t want to have a situation where somebody pulls the station and they don’t get the call,” he added. “If the horn is making the noise here and the strobe lights are going off, that doesn’t mean it’s connecting and sending a signal to dispatch.”

For that reason, they check both the equipment and the timing of signals to the authorities.

Response times and areas of improvement are used to improve during future drills. Zavala noted emergency drills can have an effect on the number of substitutes, for example, as a substitute might not be aware of the particular emergency responses of a given school. To improve that point, the district has created reference instruction sheets. The district also gives radios to all teachers and makes sure radio communication is straightforward.

“We don’t go with codes because that creates confusion,” Zavala said. “We need to know exactly what the intruder looks like and exactly where he’s at. We don’t want to go with code red, code green, anything like that, to prevent confusion.”

The district holds ALICE drills regularly throughout the year, focusing on the points of the program — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — with each drill. The program has a focus on response to an active shooter.

“We have zero tolerance when it comes to intruders,” Zavala said. “Before, everybody used to stay in the classroom and be sitting ducks. No more.”

The new training with the ALICE program encourages teachers and students to find safety when possible, including evacuating the school to leave to a meeting point elsewhere, including predetermined locations off district property.

“All the teachers are trained and being told that we’re not following a strict line or direction,” Zavala explained. “If you have an opportunity to escape and run, they are allowed to do that. If the shooter is across the street and they have the chance to run and escape and go to the park, they have the opportunity to do that.”

In addition to running to safety, part of the training includes potential counterattacks.

“If the attacker comes in with a knife, everybody can swarm to bring them down,” Zavala said.

Gonzales is ahead of other districts in the valley, which are also implementing the ALICE system. The school districts, as well as area law enforcement, plan regular meetings to review the training and drills.

In addition to known drills that happen multiple times per month, Zavala said there are the chances for a surprise drill.

“We see who responds or does what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “Then after a drill we get together and we see the points that we need to work on. Whether the teachers are visual, whether the students are reporting any activity they see that is unusual. They need to report it to anybody on site. The teacher is automatically supposed to report via radio or phone.”

Each school year’s drills are planned during the prior June, with the schedule being finalized before students leave for the summer.

“It takes quite a bit of coordination in making sure somebody from the local authorities will be available to respond to the drills,” Zavala said.

The recent electrical outages and floods caused by heavy rains are another area the district can prepare for, though the drills are for emergency events. While the Gonzales schools don’t have flood or blackout drills, they have been able to respond.

“We were able to prepare with portable freezers to make sure the food was in good shape and we didn’t have any spoils or anything like that,” Zavala said of the most recent blackout that occurred over a weekend but affected schools on a Monday.

“Some classes were in the dark, but they were able to have class continue,” he said.

The district solar arrays only generate power, and aren’t connected to power banks, but Zavala explained the district is looking into getting power banks to store electricity. He said the district has contacted the company that installed the solar systems, but installation will require time to afford the expense.

“If blackouts happen more often, it’s something the district is going to have to consider quickly and not long term,” Zavala said.

The evacuation time for Gonzales schools has been between five and 10 seconds, according to Zavala.

“We are extremely quick and that is due to all the drills,” he said.

The evacuation includes getting all people, students and staff, out of playgrounds, bathrooms and other outdoor areas and into a safe location.

“The kids are safe at Gonzales schools,” Zavala said.

Sean Roney
Sean Roney
Sean Roney is the reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers education, government and general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.

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