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The Third Branch

Columbia County finds success with 'immersion' safety training

By Susan Raimer, Columbia County Clerk of Circuit Court

Columbia County Emergency Management Director Pat Beghin leads a discussion at the county’s first-ever courthouse safety and security training program

Columbia County Emergency Management Director Pat Beghin leads a discussion at the county's first-ever courthouse safety and security training program. The audience included judges and court staff, staff from other offices in the building, and county supervisors.

This spring, for the first time ever, the Columbia County Administration Building – which houses the courtrooms and court offices – was shut down for several hours to allow all who work in the building to participate in an intensive immersion program on safety and security. In addition to the judges and court staff, participants included the district attorney, child support, treasurer, and many others – about 80 in all.

The highlight of the training was a series of drills conducted under the guidance of local law enforcement. With all the participants in their respective offices, numerous scenarios were enacted, including fire and tornado drills, and gunshots fired within the building, which would require action by the staff to protect themselves and the public.

Members of the County Security Committee evaluated what was done right and what needed improvement.

Leading up to these drills was a basic review of natural and manmade safety/security situations that would require action by the staff. The county's written Emergency Plan was revised and distributed by the Emergency Management team, and the highlights were discussed at a general assembly. Following that, the medical examiner demonstrated the handling of situations involving accidents and injuries. Then a presentation on the location, use, and care of fire extinguishers, fire alarms, and phone system alerts was conducted.

This immersion program on courthouse safety capped a two-year intensive effort to focus on making the Administration Building more secure. The effort picked up steam in 2011, when Judge W. Andrew Voigt took office in Branch 2 of the Columbia County Circuit Court. One of his goals, which the other two judges share, has been to improve the safety and security of the courts.

Judge Voigt and I attended the statewide Courthouse Safety and Security Conference in Appleton in 2012; by 2013, we were joined at the conference by a county board supervisor and two sheriff's deputies. The county security committee meetings were then jump-started, and we successfully raised awareness of the security strengths and weaknesses of the Administration Building. As a result of the committee's discussions, the Columbia County Board approved closing the administration building and county annex for the morning of March 29 so that the safety and security training could be held.

Judge Voigt presented a re-cap of the training session to the County Board, and it is anticipated that the county will do at least one or more annual expanded trainings.

County employees gave the training session high marks. One individual wrote: "Practice makes perfect. I hope someday my reaction is purely automatic." Another had this to say: "It was the best training that has ever been offered. I felt like my personal safety was important to my employer."

How we did it

At the statewide conference, the repeated message was that improving courthouse safety requires us to prepare, practice, discuss, and prepare some more. The preparation can be the most difficult.

Closing the courthouse to the public for a morning is just as tricky as it sounds – and we considered many other options first. The security committee looked at doing multiple small group trainings so that we would not inconvenience the public, and looked at a Saturday program but did not want to burden the staff.

We finally picked a half day about six months in advance, received approval from the full County Board, and then planned accordingly. We did not schedule court that morning. We notified the public in advance through radio and newspaper announcements, and by posting signs. We re-opened at noon, and I didn't hear that we received any negative input from the public.

One final note: Judge Voigt and the emergency management director met with our local newspaper reporter prior to the training, setting specific broad guidelines about her reporting of the training to ensure that shortcomings in security would not be publicized. She was permitted to cover the entire training, and abided by the agreement. – Susan Raimer

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