City addresses active shooter protocol, opioid epidemic

The Cordova Center. (July 28, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

A thought-provoking work session occurred June 15 in Cordova. The topics were not for the light of heart: “Active Shooter Preparedness” and the “Fentanyl Overdose Crisis.”

City Manager Helen Howarth began the discussion, citing Gov. Mike Dunleavy sending out a “crisis alert letter” to entities throughout the state, including medical professionals and law enforcement, rising to the level of “must act” on the opioid epidemic in Alaska.

“Two issues that have been in the forefront of the public’s awareness recently … an issue in Alaska with opioids, and the second thing of course is the Uvalde case, shooting of young children in a school, and this communities’ concerns about what is it that we do, how are we prepared to deal with an active shooter,” Howarth said.

Cordova schools Superintendent Alex Russin, Police Chief Nate Taylor, former Police Chief Mike Hicks, Dr. Hannah Sanders with Cordova Community Medical Center, Paul Trumblee with Emergency Management Services, and a School Board Behavioral Health Administrator was on hand. The experts shared insight into their perspective fields and what they are doing to keep Cordovans safe and looking to the future on how to best protect the community.

“This is something that we have trained as a community for, the type of emergency scenario at the school, be it an active shooter or be it another type of emergency, someone set out to harm people,” Chief Taylor said. The ALICE program, Taylor shared, is a protocol that began here by former police Chief Hicks, training individuals at the school district for faculty, staff and students in “proactive response strategies in the face of violence.”

 The police department — 10 officers in total shared Chief Taylor — also received training in active shooter, referred to as ALERT training, in 2016. That same year, the Alaska Shield drill took place at the schools. The Shield program is an Alaska-wide exercise to “prepare organizations with a role in disaster and/or man-made event response to function as one team,” read and excerpt from the government website.

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“EMS, fire, everyone down to the hospital, participated in those drills,” Chief Taylor said.

Taylor shared a meeting of the law enforcement minds occurred prior to the work session to discuss “our basic tactics, are we on the same page,” and talk training again to stay up to date.

Former Police Chief Hicks, a volunteer for the CVFD for 30 years, discussed training everyone from airport staff and to those in schools in best practices for worst case scenarios since 2014.

“I went to the instructor training in 2014, and I have been teaching it ever since, mainly in our schools from prekindergarten through 12th grade,” Hicks said. “We have run drills regularly. In our elementary school we have this thing called the sleeve. It goes on the scissors on top of the door, the students are trained in to put that over the door, making it so you can open the door from the outside (in the hallway). They practice with that regularly; they have been quite active with that. I started teaching the highschoolers the use of tourniquets. In a real-life scenario, generally its over before law enforcement gets there, you’re going to have to do something to protect yourself.”

Hicks shared potentially life-saving kits will be at the public’s disposal, which include stop the bleeding equipment including tourniquets. These kits will be strategically placed around Cordova, Hicks stated, including at the schools and the Cordova Center.

“People will know where they are,” Hicks said. “Hopefully they will never have to be used, but they can have something to treat themselves before officers show up.”

Police officers also have these kits available to them.

Dr. Sanders shared her desire to teach a “Stop the Bleed” course for community members.

“I am going to teach, along with some of the other providers and nurses, community courses for Stop the Bleed,” she said. “This course really provides basic information. It’s not just applicable to active shooters, its applicable to any kind of bleeding injury.”

Superintendent Russin added to the discussion and shared five different categories in which they train on for a safe school environment and readiness.

“Emergency Management include active shooter, crisis response and recovery, tactical site surveys, terrorism awareness and response as well as threat assessment,” Russin said. The threat assessment matrix used by the school had been developed by the secret service and the FBI, shared Russin.

Other training includes health — that covers how to respond to bloodborne pathogens — CPR and first aid. Information technology awareness is covered during training, learning to be cognizant of threats online and cyber bullying. Security, active shooters and “visual weapon screening” is also covered, looking out for unusual behavior and anything out of the ordinary.

A layered question fielded by Howarth to the experts: “What is one thing, something that makes you fearful if we were to be in a position of a school shooting, or any kind of shooting? What would be the thing you would be most concerned about in terms of our community’s response?”

“Manpower, you know our officer situation,” Hicks said. “We just do not have the people to respond. That is our biggest, there is not much we can do about manpower. Hopefully, the federal government will through some money at this thing to help us harden our schools, put in bullet proof glass in the entryways. I think the most proactive part is making the building secure.”

Trauma response is also a point of concern on Cordova.

“Just the recognition that we are so far away from a level one trauma center, more than a single trauma overwhelms our hospital,” said Dr. Sanders said, who highlighted volunteers for showing up in a time of crisis. “We can train and prepare, but at the end of the day we are small facility … we need prevention. We must stop injuries from getting worse before they get to our hospital, and we need to do everything we can to prevent the crisis from beginning.”

“When an emergency comes; people do come to help,” she said. Working on prevention and engaging the community is of the utmost importance.

The group of professionals began the second part of the work session and discussed the devastation that the opioid epidemic is causing in Alaska and throughout the country.

“Like anywhere else in Alaska or the United States for that matter, we have the same drugs that are available in any other city,” Chief Taylor said. “We have opioids here; we have fentanyl here. We’ve have had incidents with it here over the last couple of years, honestly probably prior to that, there were some overdoses and deaths that have occurred a while ago (2014 or 2015). It seems to come around the state in waves (that may be due to where things are imported or made) we certainly have those substances in our town.”

Gov. Dunleavy wrote an open letter to Alaskan community leaders.

“As you have heard in the news and witnessed in your communities, Alaska is experiencing a sharp and tragic surge in drug overdose deaths. Between 2020 and 2021, we have seen a 71 percent increase in overdose deaths in Alaska, based on preliminary 2021 data,” he wrote. “The synthetic opioid, Fentanyl, is driving this increase. Fentanyl is now involved in 75 percent of opioid overdose deaths. Fentanyl is 50 time stronger than heroine and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is made legally and used pharmaceutically but has also become a prevalent substance in counterfeit pills and is frequently added to other substances such as heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine.”

“We absolutely have a problem, it’s something that we need to address,” Dr. Sanders said. “We are trying to address it, but we need community engagement and prevention. Bring people in for help.”

Beloved friend to many, Zak Jacobs, tragically passed this month last year from an opioid overdose. His mother Lisa Marie Jacobs, who lived in Cordova and was a big part of the community for many years, talked about her son during the City Council meeting by phone.

“I raised my son, Zak Jacobs there (in Cordova). And more than any other place in the world, Cordova still feels like my home,” she said. She went on to share a sweet story about him describing Cordova as “heaven” while on vacation in South America.

“Zak was a fisherman and really proud of being a fisherman,” Lisa Marie Jacobs said. “I asked to be added to the agenda because there are two areas where Council might be able to provide guidance or take action to help families who are impacted by Fentanyl … Cordova needs to create a protocol on how to notify families (during these times of tragedy) and which people should receive information. The person who sold these drugs is a link in a very long chain that needs to be broken, that needs to be snapped.”

The phrase used throughout the meeting was “if you see something, say something,” it could save a life.

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Amanda Williams is a freelance reporter for The Cordova Times. She is also Aquatics Resource Management Assistant for Copper River Watershed Project. Williams is a Navy veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She has worked for a variety of newspapers in the Lower 48. She first came to Cordova as a VetsWork intern working for the Forest Service as a public outreach specialist on the Cordova Ranger District.