In some cases, no amount of preparation can prevent an incident, whether man-made or a natural disaster, such as a spill from a nearby chemical plant. That is why it is essential for schools to develop, rehearse, and update emergency preparedness plans, with clear designations of responsibilities for staff members and students.
With regard to emergency response, plans must take into consideration that at any given time, there may be on campus any number of people who are not permanent staff or students. For example, William J. Smith, of American School Safety, says that in his company’s vulnerability assessments, up to 20 percent of teachers on site are substitutes, who may not know what the emergency plans are.
Timm recommends having flip charts in each classroom. He suggests not having too much information on the chart, but enough so that anyone—such as a substitute—can still quickly ascertain his or her role in an emergency.
A common refrain regarding emergency preparedness plans is that schools write them because they are legally required to do so, but the plans then gather dust on a shelf somewhere and go unpracticed. Chris McGoey, CPP, whose company, McGoey Consulting, audits schools, notes that when he asks for the emergency plan, administrators generally have to stop and think where it is, which shows that they are not working with it as a live document.
Many state laws require that plans be updated at least once a year, but experts note that administrators have to go beyond the letter of the law; the updates can’t just be for show or to fulfill a requirement. Serious considerations must be given to addressing changes over time, such as turnover, which might require alteration of the plan and reassignment of a role to a new employee.
Scenarios. Emergency preparedness plans cannot just cover what to do in an active shooter situation or during a terrorist attack. They have to be developed from a broad assessment of a school’s vulnerabilities. For example, schools have been repeatedly advised and encouraged over recent years to have well-thought-out pandemic plans.
The problem is that schools may develop plans that are pro forma, lacking substance, says Trump. He says that in his experience, the plans are on paper, but administrators haven’t really thought through the details or developed the relationships they will need with public health first responders. Trump says that one of the most important aspects of planning is that it allows schools to make rational and economic decisions, rather than emotional knee-jerk decisions, like what he says many schools have done in the swine flu crisis.
Additionally, there are other situations that have to be planned for, such as when a school is hosting an athletic event, and it is suddenly responsible for 3,000 additional people in close quarters. The emergency response plan should address how the school would respond if an incident occurred in the midst of such an event.
Drills. Schools must practice their plans among staff and students. Fred Ellis says that Fairfax schools require fire, tornado, and lockdown drills. Ellis augments the drills by having his security planning officers conduct tabletop scenarios on a rotating basis among district schools. The exercises run a broad range of scenarios, such as bomb threats and fires.
Dorn’s group goes a step further and puts schools through red-team exercises to see how they respond to various crises as they unfold.
It’s also important that drills are about increasing preparedness, which may mean putting some inconvenience in a drill. For example, Weicker points out that drills were traditionally not done during lunch hours because it was less convenient. But that simply didn’t make sense.
“Fire has no conscience. It seems to me [that] you’ve got the hot ovens... maybe that might be a time when [a school] might have a fire,” says Weicker. Additionally, he says that if schools have an off-site evacuation area, the school should try to practice evacuation drills to examine the practicalities of moving so many children at once to see what issues the school may be dealing with in a true evacuation. It’s also important that schools have shelter-in-place plans ready for when it might be dangerous for students to leave the classroom or school buildings.
Communications. Communications are, of course, especially important in an emergency. This is an area where technological advances are helping. Schools are making more use of radios and telephones in classrooms. Additionally, comprehensive mass-notification alerting systems are now used by all types of schools.
These systems received attention after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre; many thought students might have been saved had they received a text message about a shooter on campus rather than merely e-mail after the killer’s first shootings. Now, schools are sending alerts through text, on desktops, on flat-screens, inside the schools, and outside of the schools, to students, parents, faculty, and others.
Technology still cannot be the end-all of the equation. Effective communications systems must be based on comprehensive plans of action.
Schools will need to have protocols in place that dictate how and when they will tell their students and faculty that there is a threat inside or outside the building, and they must have an established process by which they will provide instructions on how to proceed.
Weicker advises against formulating complicated code systems, however, saying schools should instead use plain English. He points out that there could be substitutes or parents in the building who do not know how to react to the code.
One thing that schools must start considering in their emergency management plans, says Trump, is the ubiquity of text messaging. Thanks to messaging systems, students can often spread news much more quickly than anyone else can.
“Rumors fly in seconds and minutes rather than hours and days. And that has created a situation where more and more, we’re seeing that rumored security, rumored threats around school safety issues have actually gotten a greater life than any real threats or incidents themselves,” says Trump.
He adds: “The problem is, school safety officials are trying to deal with whatever legitimate threat or issue exists at hand, and simultaneously deal with a crisis communications issue, where they’re trying to respond to the rumors that tend to be greater than the actual problem or incident they’re dealing with.”
Trump says part of planning for this situation is making sure that there are ways to get accurate and up-to-the-minute information out to parents, as mentioned earlier. One solution is for the school to maintain a Web site where information can be updated constantly, to supplement the briefings and periodic text alerts.