Beginning the Emergency Operations Planning Process

It is crucial that every school have a comprehensive and properly developed emergency operations plan for the facility and school-safety zone. History has demonstrated that crisis situations can occur in urban schools, suburban schools, small schools, large schools, public schools and private schools. There have been accidental, man-made and natural disasters in all types of schools during the past decade. And there has been one recurring commonality in these tragic situations — many of the affected schools did not have an adequate emergency operations plan.

Customization Is the Key

While no amount of planning or preparation can ensure that a school-crisis situation will be handled flawlessly, it is clear that communities that fail to plan properly will experience problems that could be avoided. One problem is that school and public safety officials frequently underestimate the difficulties posed by school-crisis situations. School administrators do not typically have experience or prior training with emergency management issues. Some public safety officials may mistakenly feel that a school crisis can be handled just like a crisis in any other setting. Through a collaborative effort and careful research, these hurdles can be overcome.

It is important that school emergency operation plans be developed locally, by those who will have responsibility for the implementation of the plan. The“plan in a can,” which has become so popular with many school districts, is the easy route, but it is also a route that may be fraught with danger. Such generic plans often end up being adapted to a particular school, or school system, by simple modifications, with little thought as to how they might work during a real crisis. It is also popular for school administrators to obtain a copy of another district’s plan and make simple modifications before adapting it to their own district. If you are relying on a packaged plan, it may be prudent to review the plan carefully with local public safety professionals and see if it will serve your needs in a major crisis. Such plans may provide a useful framework, but will rarely be effective during a challenging situation, if not significantly tailored to local conditions.

When put to the test by a major crisis, improperly developed plans will very often fail miserably. As one key administration official stated, after their school district experienced a mass weapons incident,“We thought we had a good plan. It was used as a statewide model prior to the incident, but our plan fell apart immediately. We had no idea that we could experience some of the problems that we were faced with.” Inadequate plans can result in increased civil liability, loss of property, loss of public confidence and most importantly, loss of life. Proper plan development is not just a good idea, it is a requirement of conducting the business of educating our children.

Developing a Customized Plan

How, then, is an adequate plan developed? First, a planning committee should be assembled. It is important that every agency that may be needed to respond to a crisis be involved. It is especially crucial that assistance be sought from the local emergency management agency. It is also important to remember that it will be the personnel from these agencies who will be the first responders to a local school-crisis situation.

Georgia Senate Bill 74 requires that all area public safety agencies be involved in the planning process. It also requires students and parents to have a role in the planning process. Further, it recognizes that faculty, as well as support staff and administrators, need to be involved. All of these parties are stakeholders in a school-crisis situation, and may contribute valuable input in plan development. Senate Bill 74 serves as an excellent framework for school emergency operations plan development. (SB 74 can be found on the Georgia Emergency Management Agency Website at .

Once the committee is established, it should develop goals and specify concerns to be addressed. A planning guide can be a useful tool in this process. Check with your state emergency management agency to see if they have a school-crisis planning guide for educational facilities. If they do not have a planning guide, they may offer a sample plan or emergency operations flip chart. These can serve to stimulate discussion and provide a framework for the development of a tailored emergency-operations plan that will match the needs and resources of your community.

The committee should then develop specific plans and procedures to cover a variety of situations. One concept is for the district to develop an overall system protocol to provide consistent guidelines for all facilities within the district. Each site designates a safety team that develops specific procedures unique to that site.

For example, system protocol might mandate the following when students are evacuated for a bomb threat:

    • several sites should be available, at least 1,000 feet from the facility;

    • these sites will be rotated after they are used; and

    • a “go ahead team” shall inspect the site for suspicious packages before students and staff are evacuated.

The school procedure would then outline which sites have been identified for that specific facility and the route that students will take to reach each of the sites.

The planning process must be an ongoing and introspective look at the hazards and resources of the individual community. Through diligent efforts involving all relevant agencies, development of a viable emergency operations plan is within reach. By realizing that school-crisis situations require response efforts that are well thought out, practiced and properly applied under trying conditions, you can be ready if the need arises.

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at