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Coping with the Inconceivable: Sandy Hook Responders in Maine to Share Lessons Learned
04/23/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Lt. Christopher Vanghele was one of the first officers on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary last December. He smelled the gun powder in the halls, saw the smoke, and heard the silence. Vanghele and another officer from Newtown, Connecticut shared their stories today at an emergency preparedness conference at the Augusta Civic Center. Patty Wight was there.

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Coping with the Inconceivable: Sandy Hook Respond Listen

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Sandy Hook Police Officer Jeff Silver (left) and Lt. Christopher Vanghele at an event in Augusta today.

Vanghele says it's still hard for him to believe what happened on that December day, when 20 children and six adults were killed. His message to Maine emergency responders: Inconceivable incidents do happen, and they need to prepare for them.

"There's such a disbelief," he says. "I was telling people that you could have had a flying saucer land and have Martians come out, and I would have believed that more than what I was seeing."

While no two tragedies are alike, Vanghele says there are always lessons to learn. He says after 13 people died at Columbine High School in 1999, police changed protocol from waiting for specialized teams to respond to taking immediate action.

One of the lessons from Sandy Hook, says fellow Newtown police officer Jeff Silver, is the importance of training and collaboration.

"You know, you can have 15 different agencies showing up, especially in an area like this, and they need to know how to work together, communicate together, formulate a plan, and take care of things," Silver says. "So kind of having a standardized system and working together is incredibly important."

That system, Silver says, must also include schools. Winthrop police chief Joseph Young says emergency responders in his community are busily writing action plans and policies, and have already started engaging more with local schools.

"One of the things that we've been doing, the police department's been actively patroling the halls of the schools, becoming more familiar with the layout of the schools, becoming more familiar with the students and the staff, and preparing ourselves," Young says. "So we've been doing that actively every day."

Dwane Hubert from the Maine Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, says many schools across the state are buying security equipment and are asking how to develop appropriate emergency plans. Hubert says he's glad schools are taking action - MEMA has sample plans on its Web site to help - but follow through is essential.

"Here's where we fall down many times - is we need to exercise those plans on a regular basis," Hubert says. "Not just fire drills, but lock down drills and other portions of the plan that typically don't get looked at until the time comes."

Just as important as preparing for an emergency incident itself, says Newtown police Lt. Christopher Vanghele, is preparing for the aftermath.

"There's things that are coming up, there's entire job descriptions that are created because of an incident like this," Vanghele says. "You're really not back to your job as usual. You have your job as usual, and you have Sandy Hook."

There's a littany of issues Vanghele says the Newtown police have had to deal with - everything from the media and politics, to an overwhelming amount of donations.

But perhaps the most important thing to prepare for after such a tragedy, says Vanghele, is responding to the mental health needs of emergency responders, "because even if you can forget about an incident, even if the TV cameras are gone, and it's back to the normal, you have somebody out there that still has it, maybe, in their head."

MEMA Director Rob McAleer says while it's difficult to envision something similar happening in Maine, emergency responders and schools have an obligation to prepare.

Photo by Patty Wight.


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