If you see police showing up to a Hermiston school in tactical gear, it may be nothing more than a false alarm.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston announced Friday that from now on, available on-duty and patrol officers will be responding to any local school, public or private, that has an unexpected fire alarm go off.
He said he’s aware that people driving by may be alarmed to see multiple officers arriving at a school and donning protective helmets, vests and rifles. But past school shooters — including the recent high school shooting in Parkland, Florida — have pulled fire alarms as a way to draw more people into the hallways, and the new policy could cause the move to backfire on someone intending to harm students by bringing law enforcement to the school before the first 9-1-1 call.
“Our focus is the safety of the students,” Edmiston said.
The downside is from time to time local schools do have false alarms, either accidentally or as a result of a student purposely pulling an alarm when there is no fire. Hermiston schools are well-equipped with cameras, Edmiston said, and if a student pulls an alarm on purpose because they think it is funny they could be charged with disorderly conduct.
“It’s like yelling fire in a movie theater or yelling bomb on a plane,” he said. “There’s some things you just don’t do.”
Whether it’s a false alarm or not, the public can help by treating the appearance of police seriously and not interfering with officers. If it turns out the fire alarm was from an actual fire, police can then help with traffic and crowd control as the fire department does its job.
Edmiston said when law enforcement arrives at a school, likely ahead of the fire trucks, they will not prevent fire personnel from entering the building before police have made contact with a school administrator to find out what is going on. He said he notified Umatilla County Fire District 1 of the plan and will have a sit-down to discuss it in-depth next week.
“I told them, we’re not going to call a false alarm, that’s your job,” he said. “And we’ll try and park out of the way, let them do their job.”
Edmiston has also worked with Hermiston School District Superintendent Tricia Mooney and director of operations Brad Wayland on plans for future fire alarms. Maria Duron, communications officer for the school district, said in an email the district supports the police department’s decision to respond to fire alarm activations. They also plan to make the department aware of scheduled drills ahead of time.
“Should the fire alarms go off in our schools unplanned, we will be investigating the cause, staff and students will follow safety procedures and we will notify the public,” she said.
Edmiston said there has been some concern in recent years about the “militarization” of police but the vests, helmets and rifles that police will put on over their regular uniforms would help protect them and give them a better chance against an active shooter.