Monday, December 24, 2012

Square Pegs, Sadness, and Old Rock Stars

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more. 

                             - Matthew 2:18

I would like to be writing about something else as Christmas approaches. It should be a time of joy and quiet reflection, surrounded by those who love and care about you. Despite this, there are other things going on that are making this year's holidays more challenging. 

The Newtown, Connecticut mass shootings have been at the forefront of the national conscience for the last week. This event, even more than others of recent note, has shown the need for all us to step back, breathe deeply, try to make sense of the news flashes and rumor-mongering, and resist the urge to make snap judgments. 

wrote at length earlier this year after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. My feelings about the nature of these events remain unchanged. There are some things that spring to mind about this latest event that have to be said, however.

Newtown is to me but a momentary blip on a well-traversed road. Sandy Hook Elementary is but a mile or two from Interstate 84, part of a seemingly bucolic suburban/rural countryside between the New York state line and Hartford, scarcely noted and just as quickly forgotten while trying to get somewhere else. 

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of Newtown - once and for all - is that it can happen here.

Several articles compared the Newtown shooting with the the biblical account of the Slaughter of the Innocents - in the time after the birth of the Christ child, King Herod ordering the death of all boys under 2 years of age, in hopes of catching the infant Jesus among the dead. 

This was not the first thing on my mind when contemplating these events. My thoughts were thrown back to two evenings before, when I tuned in the Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief that was broadcast on seemingly every cable network. We were confronted with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd singing what is probably the toughest song of his masterpiece The Wall, with the assistance of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.

Mr. Vedder's presence caused me to start interlacing the lyrics he was singing with one of his own band's more famous songs, topical to the events at hand - 

I have become comfortably numb...

Jeremy spoke in class today....

These were combining in my head with the lyric and haunting solo piano of an Elton John masterpiece from 1974. As a result, the soundtrack of my life this week has been in a decidedly minor key.

You've lived too long in silence, Mama said, remember Mama said, ticking, ticking..

Assuming that life can be compared to a movie, the quality of the script hopefully trumps the background music. Resolve on the part of the players to not allow these events to define us as a society, to rise above them, and join together with the President in saying "enough" - is but the tip of an iceberg of issues that seem to combine to create the atmosphere where such atrocities can occur. 

To be sure, we've had enough - but enough of what?

Guns - I believe that gun laws would likely not have prevented what happened in Newtown - the guns used were legally owned by a law-abiding citizen. Regardless of what the NRA had to say (and was there really any doubt about what they were going to say?), we as a country need to take a good hard look at both the practical and cultural aspects of guns in our society. 

There are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate about whether or not to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons. Efforts to close the so-called "gun show loophole" equate to the prohibition of gun sales between private individuals, which would effectively require a background check for any gun sale conducted within the boundaries of the law.

The NRA's initial suggestion of an armed presence in every school - something they're calling National School Shield - sounds more at the onset like a reactive posture that only addresses one component of what needs to be a comprehensive solution. As such, it landed in Connecticut with a decisive thud.

best practice methodology - one that addresses technology, processes and people and leverages resources on a multi-disciplinary basis - is for me the best approach toward applying a solution that is both responsive in the short term and sustainable over the long haul. Those other disciplines are:

Mental Health - Newtown is yet another example this year of deadly actions taken by a subject - in this case 20 year old Adam Lanza - who had displayed very high intelligence accompanied by social isolation, combined with the means, financial or otherwise, to accomplish his ends. 

This is bringing additional public debate about the nature of the safety net that is supposed to be in place, in the form of community mental health services and crisis team response.

There are several excellent posts on a Washington Post blog that delve into many issues surrounding the mentally ill in America - from the lack of effective treatment options to the lack of understanding of certain disorders such as Asperger's Syndrome to the demonization and stigma surrounding those who are suffering.  

One writer took the novel approach of suggesting that the firearms industry should take an active role in funding mental health outreach programs. This made me think of Chris Rock's idea on how to reduce gun violence. 

Still another blogger saw a post written about her personal experiences as a parent of such a child, titled "I am Adam Lanza's Mother", go viral. She wrote an excellent follow-up in USA Today. This all sounds like a bizzaro version of an Erma Bombeck column.

I believe that there are many people, including myself, who share personality characteristics similar to the shooters at Western Psych, Aurora, and Newtown. I believe that the effects of social isolation, along with environmental factors and stimuli unique to our period in history, are contributing factors to a documented increase in children being diagnosed with what are known as Persuasive Developmental Disorders.  

Now imagine, if you can, being unable to effectively interact with anyone unfamiliarinstead retreating into an artificial environment of television, computers, and/or video games. Something happens, that world is threatened, and you cannot cope. Your attempts to secure help are met with misunderstanding, dismissal, or contempt. You drive yourself deeper into escapes from this reality, until circumstance backs you into a corner. A response from outside the acceptable boundaries of reality appears inevitable.

This was expanded upon by an anonymous writer, who submitted an essay to Newsweek/Daily Beast, which published it under the provocative headline I Was Adam Lanza. Now a more stable adult after years of therapy, the writer attempts to explain, from first person experience, how someone like Mr. Lanza may have been driven to his actions. This stuck out for me -

When your brain works more efficiently than everyone else's, that means it performs most mental tasks more efficiently than other people, including go crazy. Worse, because a smart person's brain is so good at running through hypotheses and rejecting them, it tends to come up with insanity that's more resistant to basic therapy, because the rationalizations are built to withstand the assault of a genius level intellect. When people say genius and insanity are close cousins, this is what they're talking about.

And when you're isolated from other people, your own mind - and its crazy ideas - becomes the only company you have.

I have no scientific basis for any of this, of course - just a feeling based on my own life - that there is a comfort in the speed and ease (mostly) of electronically produced results, and the illusion of control when dealing with the cool, arbitrary nature of ones and zeroes. It doesn't translate well when facing tragedies and choices in the real world. Paging Neo and Morpheus...

School Safety - Before we establish an independent, separate layer of armed security at the behest of a lobbying group that serves firearms manufacturers, let's look at what's in place so far, and how we as a community can enhance those efforts.

My experience with school safety and response planning, mostly in Colorado, centers on extensive use of the School Resource Officer (SRO) concept. According to a tutorial from the Center for Technology in Education at Johns Hopkins University, an SRO is best defined as - 

..a sworn law enforcement officer, assigned to a school on a long-term basis. The SRO is specifically trained in and performs three main functions, law enforcement officer; law related counselor; and law related educator. In addition the SRO works in collaboration with the school and the community as a resource.

That aptly describes the SRO's I worked with out west - not just an armed guard standing next to a metal detector, but someone who was invested in providing an active, responsive police presence not only to their assigned schools, but to the general community surrounding them. A component of the community public safety system, there to educate as much as to protect and serve.

This concept appears not to be as well embraced in Pennsylvania as it could be. A comprehensive article, published in 2000 by the National Center for Juvenile Justice - now headquartered in Pittsburgh - detailed what was then a grant-funded program to place SRO's in several schools across the commonwealth.

The article detailed the daily activities of North Fayette Township Police Officer John Bates, the SRO at West Allegheny High School, and the pilot SRO program initially funded by grants from the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The SRO program there is still in place and functioning well, according to now Sergeant Bates, who when contacted last week stated he was getting a lot of calls from nearby school districts about their program, which is now jointly funded by the township and the school district. 

As reported extensively in recent days, Quaker Valley schools employ an armed police officer as an SRO. Robert Wright appears to function as a district employee when on duty, even though he also works as a police officer in Sewickley. Whether Officer Wright can exercise police powers when he's wearing his QV hat is unclear, and is something I will explore further after those in charge return from their holiday breaks.

The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO)responding to the NRA's recent comments, stated that "only a fully-trained law enforcement officer should carry a firearm on school property. In addition, law enforcement officers assigned permanently to schools should receive specialized SRO training as soon as possible."

It sounds as if Quaker Valley is ahead of the curve on this issue, but I think that there's room for improvement in terms of providing a layer of protection, service, and response that is seamless between school and community. This means that the officer protecting the high school can also help to investigate and mitigate problems in the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Things like traffic and parking issues.... 

As much as I would like to talk about moving forward in the spirit of peace and love, the reports of continued violence continue to stream in. While I wrote this today, public safety brethren in the Rochester, New York were reeling from today's fire and ambush that killed 2 volunteer firefighters. One was also a police officer, the other a 9-1-1 Dispatcher.

Hope is a precarious emotional commodity, even at this time of the year. I remain faithful that we'll see our way through this. Hearts and minds are stirring - it will be messy, but we will get through it - together.  

We need to watch out for, and care for, one another. That collective action of our hearts and minds is greater than any gun, badge, doctor, or government agency, and is keeping with the true spirit of this season. 

The luminaria will probably be wet tonight, but they will still be lit.

I'll wish you the best possible holiday with a couple of 70's throwbacks, both involving old rock stars and some unlikely combinations of music and performers.

Here's to a blessed and peaceful Christmas, courtesy of Sonny and Cher and David Bowie and Bing Crosby.

And to all a good night.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Light-Up Night: The Shadow Fireworks

Wow, it's December already.

The Thanksgiving weekend came and went quietly and uneventfully. Leslie, Gianna and I were the beneficiaries of a neighbor's hospitality for holiday dinner. 

That's how it seems to go, what with working weekends and tending to avoid participating in Black Friday, otherwise known (at least to me) as the high holy day of The First Church of My Stuff. I saw at least one Internet meme over that weekend that brought this point home very clearly.

This past Friday evening I headed to the library to review some long-awaited research materials for an upcoming post, and encountered the traffic and crowds associated with Sewickley's annual light-up night

The library was bustling with activity associated with the event as well. Staff were setting up tables for kids to do a craft project. Sewickley Herald reporter Bobby Cherry was there as part of their coverage of the festivities.

When I left just before 6, I noticed crowds making their way into the event areas along Broad Street, via the closed section at the intersection with Thorn. There were clearly marked detour signs posted, along with dedicated signs for a detour around the celebration for those needing to access Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital.

That's when I heard the helicopter. 

Thinking that it was perhaps more than coincidental that a helicopter could be circling the village at that time - perhaps a news chopper to add to the hype surrounding the festivities - I scanned the skies for a spotlight or other visual cue. Not finding any, I started scanning the airwaves, specifically the public safety and aviation bands, for some telltale activity.

Finding some, I headed across the river to find a STAT Medevac aircraft at the landing zone adjacent to Valley Ambulance headquarters, with Moon Township VFC standing by. An ambulance had just left with the flight crew, headed toward Sewickley in bridge traffic that was backed up almost to Coraopolis, and through the village detour to the hospital previously mentioned. It took roughly 10 minutes, with lights and sirens, for them to travel the roughly 1 1/2 miles to the hospital. 

As I wrote in February, the practice of flying patients out of Heritage Valley Sewickley is an infrequent, complex, and frankly perplexing exercise. This is taking into consideration the underlying reasons for using that mode of transportation (usually speed), the proximity of Sewickley to Pittsburgh, and the ready availability of ground transportation. 

After about 45 minutes, the flight crew was making their way back to the aircraft with their patient, and shortly afterward lifted off for a Pittsburgh hospital with what sounded like someone with a cardiac problem.

It's likely that the ambulance committed to that relay back and forth from the aircraft could have had the patient in Pittsburgh in considerably less time, and for a lot less money. Finding out how and why this happens is near impossible, what with privacy laws and stakeholders less than willing to speak to anyone about the underlying processes and politics of our so-called "non-profit" health care system. 

All one can do is try to be an educated health care consumer. 

This wasn't the only thing happening in Sewickley during light-up night. When the fireworks started, the numerous police officers deployed throughout the village were alerted to a report of a male seeking psychiatric evaluation who had run from the Heritage Valley Sewickley ER. A description was aired, and hospital security was seen in the area of Broad and Centennial assisting in the search. It's unknown if the man was ever located or turned back up. 

Sewickley Borough Manager Kevin Flannery, contacted today, dismissed the incident as more commonplace than it might actually seem to be. He estimated that 5 to 7 people run from the ER a year. This makes one wonder even more about another health care factor  relegated to the shadows, perhaps deliberately - the propensity of mental illness in our society, often exacerbated by substance abuse. 

My primary purpose for speaking with Mr. Flannery was to get a sense of the emergency planning contingencies in place for an event that draws a large amount of traffic and several thousand people to a few square blocks of shopping district. I was impressed with what I heard.

Mr. Flannery cited joint planning efforts by the Police Department, Cochran Hose Company, and his office to assure that emergency resources are able to quickly respond into the event area, and that people can be moved quickly from the areas if needed. He spoke about assuring a minimum 18-feet wide clearance to allow emergency vehicle ingress and egress to and from key entry and exit points to the event. Cochran Hose volunteers also assured that the fire station was fully staffed and ready.  

This was put to the test in recent years as well as this year, when a vehicle was reported to be on fire near the intersection of Blackburn Road and McCready Way. Firefighters found that the car had just overheated.

Other reports included some who had enjoyed perhaps a little too much holiday cheer. One woman wanted officers to find a friend that she had become separated from. One man was arrested near the borough building for public intoxication. 

And in the 'ignorance is bliss' department, several reports of loud pounding noises were made by borough residents..during the fireworks display.

Planning for these types of special events is often accomplished by emergency managers and local governments through the use of the National Incident Management System, or NIMS. There is specialized online training available through the FEMA NIMS website to address these events, defined by FEMA as "a nonroutine activity within a community that brings together a large number of people".

Mr. Flannery expressed satisfaction that the event was so well attended, but also stated that some merchants complained that foot traffic within their shops was less than expected, owing to how nice it was outside. I'm sure someone will get right on that problem for next year...

Mr. Flannery also expressed gratitude to Heritage Valley for allowing use of their parking garage during the event. He also stated that the pleasant conditions made walking from the parking lots at War Memorial Park more amenable to attendees.

As far as attendance at these types of events, Mr. Flannery also cited the annual Harvest Festival and Memorial Day observance as examples where their efforts in planning and communications have paid off.

I asked him about potential contingencies where attendance numbers would possibly require the use of overflow parking in more remote locations, with shuttle buses into the village. Mr. Flannery stated there are areas where such a contingency could be implemented if needed, but he also hoped that attendance would not get too far beyond the 7 to 9,000 that these events have been typically drawing in recent years.

That's a good perspective - not necessarily wanting too much of a good thing. Perhaps that's a message that all of us can identify with. 

May the holidays bring you joy and peace.