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PHPD introduces family reunification/assistance program for mass casualty incidents

A screenshot of Officer Dennis Huisman at the Jan. 9 city council meeting.

By Jim Bloch

How do you reunite children with their families in the wake of a mass casualty incident and how do you get them the help they need?

The Port Huron Police Department has introduced a series of protocols to reunite kids and families and to provide family assistance of all kinds in the event of a shooting or other mass casualty event — fires, floods, tornados, blizzards, blackouts or bombings — at a school or other facility.

Two PHPD officers, Dennis Huisman and Sam Baker, attended a conference in Colorado sponsored by the I Love U Guys Foundation, dedicated to developing standard response and reunification protocols in the event of community tragedies.

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Huisman presented the city’s new family reunification and assistance plan at the regular meeting of the city council held Jan. 9.

“I gave them my blessing,” said Chief Joe Platzer, as heard on the recording of the meeting posted on the city’s website. “I pray it never comes here to Port Huron or St. Clair County. But I’m a firm believer that it’s just a matter of when … and how prepared we are for it.”

Huisman said that first responders train to intervene in mass shooter incidents but they tend to ignore what happens when the violence ends.

“We’re really good at training for the first five or 10 minutes, but afterwards, reuniting families, getting families the assistance they need, if it’s medical, if it’s mental health, we really have fallen short,” said Huisman.

The I Love U Guys Foundation was launched in 2006 following the killing of the founder’s daughter in a mass shooting. The last text she sent to her parents was, “I love u guys.” By 2009, the foundation had developed the Standard Response Protocol. After Sandy Hook, it added the Standard Reunification Protocol.

Because Port Huron already had a response plan in place, the police focused on reunification planning.

“We in Port Huron use the Active Assailant Response training,” said Huisman. “Some places use ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) or RUN-HIDE-FIGHT. I Love You Guys came up with their own program. After Sandy Hook, they started the Standard Reunification Method.”

One of the biggest problems with reunification is that some parents will find themselves with no child to reunify with.

“Where is my child?” asked Huisman. “Is my child a suspect? Is my child a victim? Is my child missing or is my child at home — because some kids are just going to go home after an incident like this.”

One of the goals of the protocols is to impose order on a disorganized situtation.

“A predetermined, practiced unification method ensures the reunification process will not further complicate what is probably already a chaotic, anxiety-filled scene,” according to the foundation.

The police department purchased a trailer to haul supplies to the scenes of crimes or disasters. In the trailer are 24 prep radios, 10 chairs, six folding tables, three dry erase boards, a collapsible podium, seven A-frame signs, 14 traffic cones, a 10-feet by 10 feet pop-up shelter, two megaphones, flashlights, pens, highlighters and batteries.

One of the initial steps is to remove the kids from the site of the event and get them to a safe location. In Sandy Hook, family reunification took place at the fire station across from the elementary school.

A number of citizen volunteers completed training in December to help the police.

“The foundation gives you a checklist of things you might need,” said Huisman, such as job action sheets, binders, role IDs, reunification cards, contact lists of first responder agencies, clip boards, safety vests, wristbands. “When someone shows up after one of these incidents, we hand them a binder. Inside of it, we have name tags, badges that show what your job is, job action sheet that tell you your roles. So anyone could show up and, after being vetted, help us for every position we need.”

Parents looking for kids will fill out reunification cards that allow police to check police and school logs to make sure the person is on the child’s release card.

“So we’re getting children to the right people,” said Huisman.

The response kit includes two kits filled with enough supplies for 50 people to help first responders.

PHPD will conduct a full-scale reunification exercise later this year.

Only one other city in Michigan is using the protocol.

“Thank you for your efforts,” said Mayor Pauline Repp. “It looks really good.”

“It sounds like a command center on wheels,” said council member Anita Ashford.

“Let’s hope we never have to use it,” said Mayor Pro Tem Sherry Archibald.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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