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Time for a medical timeout: SDHSAA mandates pre-game meetings to prepare for emergencies

From left, Mitchell High School Activities Director Cory Aadland, MHS Athletic Trainer Clayton Gropper and football referee Jason Selchert examine radar as potential severe weather approached Joe Quintal Field during a 2017 high school football game. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Before a single whistle blows or before a ball is put in play, high school officials in South Dakota will be enforcing new rules on how athletic contests are administered.

Starting with this fall season, the South Dakota High School Activities Association will have registered officials hold "a pre-contest medical timeout," which will be a short meeting to have administrators, officials and coaches on the same page about emergency personnel and protocols in case of emergency.

While that meeting could take as little as 30 to 45 seconds, it's mandatory and will be held at the start of the first contest of the day at every high school athletic venue in the state. In many school districts around the state, the process has already been in place in some way previously. But the medical timeout format formalizes many of those conversations to make sure the major parties involved in a game are ready, said SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand.

"It's formalizing what we've always said but at the same time, it's written down and it's one of the rules," Krogstrand said. "We're bringing the officials into the plan on a given night and it's not just an assumption that the duty of care is being taken care of. It's probably not anything that the casual fan will notice but it's important."

Officials will be looking for the answers to five questions:

• Who is the game administrator for each team?

• Is there a qualified medical professional on site?

• Is there an emergency action plan in place for the venue?

• Is there an automated emergency defibrillator on site?

• Where are the emergency exits/entrances for the facility?

In many cases, a school principal, athletic director or superintendent can serve as the game administrator and will be in charge of crowd control. If there's nobody else present, the head coach will be responsible for those duties.

For Mitchell High School events, Activities Director Cory Aadland is almost always the primary game administrator in place. He said the timeout plan takes assumptions for those in charge off the table.

"It gives a little more structure, so that there's not as much assumption there," Aadland said. "There's a little more explicit direction of covering those questions."

The qualified medical professional role can be filled by a paramedic, emergency medical technician, doctor, nurse or athletic trainer. If a school doesn't have any of those people in place, coaches who have completed national online courses for first aid and CPR are accessible.

For the questions about emergency action plans, AED availability and emergency exit plans, the only acceptable answer is yes, Krogstrand said. Those are expected to cover various types of emergencies and incidents, including events that are natural, criminal or medical in nature.

Krogstrand said the idea was created out of the state's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and based on plans from Oregon and Arizona. He said the program is not meant to attack the previous protocols of school districts but to emphasize safety and risk minimization and to formalize a process likely already in place in many schools.

"We want to emphasize the schools that are doing it right," he said. "It's kind of like how we have fire drills and fire extinguishers and we have fire alarms to take care of people and this is sort of along those lines."

Officials will record answers from school officials and will file reports to the SDHSAA for schools that need corrective action, which will lead to a follow-up from the SDHSAA staff to develop a plan.

Aadland, who also officiated high school sports locally prior to his job at MHS, said he felt comfortable with local school leaders when he officiated a game if an emergency took place.

"The challenge, of course, is that you can't train for every situation or prepare for everything that could possibly happen but you prepare as best as you can," he said.

Part of the plan is also to emphasize that the AED systems that have become increasingly more prevalent in schools and community buildings are always available in case of an emergency. At the same time, if it's an outdoor sporting event, the AED should be on hand and not located back at the school or locked away. Schools around the state have been provided the machines over the last few years.

"If that AED is in the school office or principal's office and it takes 2 to 3 to 4 minutes to get that, that hurts the chances of survival," Krogstrand said. "They're as truly a life-saving a device as we have and they've been manufactured so that anyone could use them. We need to make sure they're available."

Mitchell has added more AEDs across its district in recent years, while Aadland noted that the school's athletic training staff and partnership with doctors at Avera Queen of Peace gives the Kernels a large advantage in preparedness.

"They're another step to know that if we have something major, we're going to be ready," Aadland said.

Krogstrand also noted that the plan is just as important for spectators as it is for players, coaches and officials.

"We've seen cases where a little planning can help save a life and makes for a safe event for everyone," he said.