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February 20, 2013

Blinn volunteers respond to crises with training and courage

Dozens of faculty and staff form the College’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT)

CIRT GearImagine teaching a full class full on any ordinary day when suddenly, an alert text splashes across your phone “Evacuate campus immediately.”

“What’s going on? Is there a shooter outside? Is there a bomb threat in our building?”

But perhaps the biggest question is, “Who is keeping us safe?”

The answer to that all-important question at Blinn College is the Critical Incident and Response Team (CIRT).

CIRT began as an idea on the Blinn College – Bryan campus in 1999 when Police Captain Bill May and Lab Coordinator Kim Boetger decided it was time for the College to find a better way to respond to mass emergencies.

“There was nothing here before,” May said. “I got nervous early on because it was just me, and we couldn’t evacuate the College’s largest campus. That’s when I met Kim (Boetger), and she took the program and ran with it.”

CIRT’s first task in 2001 was launching an information campaign to let local responders to know about the program’s mission and what its purpose was. Boetger led the development of an online training module developed in Bryan to explain the team’s mission and formalize key safety and emergency procedures.

“We formed a team of faculty and staff volunteers and started training them in 2001,” Boetger said.

She and May organized a team to kick off the project and held an orientation meeting to let the trainees know what would be expected of them—mainly to guide calm, safe building evacuations, assist with shelter-in-place scenarios and even search for suspicious devices during bomb threats.

With support from administration, faculty and staff are recruited campus wide for membership in CIRT, with the goal of at least two team members coming from each building.  Having members spread throughout the campus speeds evacuations along and allows members to back each other up in the event a team member is off campus for the day. The team interfaces seamlessly with the campus police and emergency responders.

“We do a lot of training every month,” Boetger said. “We invite responders to our trainings, the actual people with boots on the ground. We also include organizational training that focuses on resources, logistics, planning and finances—always important if we need emergency funding for equipment.”

According to Boetger, emergency exercises, such as evacuation drills reveal the areas that can be improved before the next drill or execution of emergency plans.

“In one instance, we found two rooms where there were no audible alarms,” Boetger said. “Had we not done the exercise, we never would have known. We drill annually for fire evacuation readiness and are also incorporating lockdown drills and training for active shooters.”

Training sessions also include guest responders from emergency response teams outside Blinn, which give trainees a broader view of emergency prevention and response.

“We’ve had safety officials from the state  and local counties come talk about biological and chemical terroristic response,” Boetger said. “They  demonstrate the kind of equipment available for detecting chemical and biological threats.”

Other guest presenters have included Urban Search and Rescue, the FBI and the National Weather Service.

CIRT-led tours have included a walkthrough of the National Guard Armory near the campus on 25th street—a resource the team may need to use in the event of a crisis.

“It’s possible we’d need to function on our own for at least 24 hours if something happens,” Boetger said. “It’s good to know that if our resources are spent, we still have national, state and federal resources as well. We’re blessed to have Texas Task Force 1 located in our community.”

Since its launch with a handful of members in 2001, CIRT has grown to 40 faculty and staff, each representing a portion of Bryan’s main campus, post office campus, fitness center and Blinn’s Allied Health programs located at the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

“We have networked quite a lot with the community,” Boetger said. “We’ve been accepted broadly in the community too, which helps a lot.”

Boetger said that the word is getting out about CIRT and the College’s commitment to safety. Rather than being passive players in their own protection, faculty and staff are actively attending training like the recent “Run, Hide, Fight” module about an active shooter scenario on campus. 

“We did this four times last week, and then we did 9:00 to 3:00, every hour, on the hour,” Boetger said. “We did that training for two days, and we also presented it to the division chairs, so it’s gotten to be about nine or ten times that we’ve presented the program in that time frame. And we were really happy to reach close to 90 people over a two-day span last week.”

Most CIRT trainings have been extended to all faculty and staff, with two trainings per month during the main semesters.

According to Boetger, in CIRT’s early days people were more hesitant to get involved, but she credits a national change in thinking about disasters and preparedness for creating a sense of urgency to prepare for the worst.

“I think most people are trying to face the reality that it could happen anywhere, anytime, so we want to try to be as prepared as possible,” Boetger said. “No plan is perfect, and that’s why we continue to train. Last year, we had two search exercises for suspicious devices. It’s just practice, practice, practice.”

As far as CIRT’s future is concerned, May says the Blinn – Bryan team will continue to grow and progress, and plans are taking shape to form a CIRT team on the Blinn College – Brenham campus.