Are You Prepared for the Next Crisis?

Mrs. Kent, the school secretary, was in complete shock. Standing before her was Mrs. Amerson, the 65-year-old grandmother of Sarah Johnson. Upon being told that she could not see her granddaughter because of a restraining order, the frail Mrs. Amerson pulled a large revolver from her pocketbook, pointed it at Mrs. Kent and demanded that she see Sarah immediately. She also told Mrs. Kent she knew the school was part of the conspiracy to brainwash her granddaughter.

As the incident command post was set up, the police department duty officer noticed that hundreds of frantic parents were already arriving at the school. From the flow of cars screeching to a halt in a haphazard fashion, he knew that soon several thousand people would swarm the scene. At that moment an afterthought struck him. With a few hours of effort, his department could have programmed its $500,000 computer-aided dispatch system to prompt communications personnel automatically. They, in turn, would dispatch officers to block off specific choke points around any school in the community affected by a major crisis.

Well, it was too late now, he thought. His officers had lost control of the situation and it would take hours to stabilize it. He could not believe that he had not thought to make sure that all area schools were added to the list of critical facilities programmed into the CAD system.

Inside the school, Mrs. Amerson was now holding the principal, the assistant principal and several office staff members at gunpoint. Mrs. Kent was desperately trying to calm her down. However, since Mrs. Amerson had not taken her medication, it was to no avail.

Thoughts flooded through the principal’s mind. He knew his staff would begin implementing the emergency operations plan immediately‚Ķ except the plan was in the emergency evacuation kit less than ten feet away! Then he remembered that there was a second kit in Mrs. Johnson’s office and she surely would have taken it with her when she left the building.

At that very moment, Mrs. Johnson realized that in her haste to evacuate the building, she had forgotten to take the evacuation kit with her. She felt like an idiot. How could she have done something so foolish? She wished they had followed through with the regularly scheduled drills and exercises to make sure that everyone would function properly under the stress of a real crisis — like this one.

The S.W.A.T. commander could not believe what he was hearing. The maintenance director had just informed him that the school district had spent over $100,000 to put each school’s emergency operations plan, building schematics, interior and exterior photographs and even video tours of each school on CD-ROM, but the only two copies were in emergency evacuation kits that were still in the school!

“What about security cameras?” he asked excitedly. The maintenance director quickly informed him that they had recently installed $75,000 worth of top-end security cameras in the school and two cameras were located in the main office area. At that moment, the maintenance director realized that he should have heeded the advice of the consultant who had suggested using fewer cameras to offset the cost of the system, and use the saved money for secure and remote viewing by computer through the Internet.

There’s Got to Be a Better Way

While this scene might seem far-fetched, I can assure you it is not. Often, schools make substantial investments in school safety technology without coordinating their efforts. It is easy for educators and public safety officials to get so focused on their many responsibilities that they sometimes forget to take a few minutes and talk to each other… before a crisis takes place.

Today’s security technology is nothing short of extraordinary. The heightened awareness of school safety in recent years has created an enormous market for school safety products and services. Manufacturers have responded with an array of useful and well-made products. And while there are definitely some poor-quality and even dangerous products and services available, there are many good ones that can help to dramatically improve the level of safety in your school.

How can school officials reduce the odds of making simple but critical mistakes when acquiring and implementing school safety technology? How can you get the most for your limited dollars? With scores of salespeople and consultants telling you that their products and expertise are what you need, whom should you listen to?

The answer is quite simple in concept, but it requires effort. You have to communicate — ask questions, verify answers, seek input and brief others.

Look Before You Leap

A basic rule is to understand your needs before you purchase equipment or services. Solicit feedback from students, faculty and staff to identify and prioritize concerns. I know of one district that spent $250,000 to purchase an elaborate security camera system, when the biggest problem was the presence of guns and knives on campus. The district could have seen much more significant results by spending half that amount on metal detectors and X-ray units to establish an effective random weapons screening program.

During separate incidents in this district, one student was shot, another emptied a .357 magnum revolver into a high school hallway, and yet another student was caught with a bomb in his book bag. It is obvious the screening equipment would have been a more prudent investment.

Know Your Home Ground

Next, you must conduct tactical site surveys on all school facilities (see“How to Conduct Proper Tactical Site Surveys” in SP&M’s April 1999 issue). Whether coordinated through a state agency, a qualified consultant, a major vendor, your insurance carrier or your own personnel, tactical site surveys need to be completed before equipment is purchased. Spending $500 to $1,500 per facility is cheap compared to the purchase of a half-million-dollar system that is not properly suited to your situation.

Work as a Team

Regardless of who coordinates your site surveys, make sure that your local public safety agencies are asked to participate. Do not make the common mistake of failing to use your local experts in this process. These are the same experts who will be responding to the facility in the event of a crisis. Be skeptical of consultants who try to convince you that they should handle site surveys without the assistance of local public safety and emergency management personnel.

In the same vein, be sure to involve all area public safety and emergency management agencies in the development of your emergency operations plan (EOP). I often point out to seminar participants that I can do a great job in helping them develop their EOP. I am considered to be one of the top people in my field. However, no one person has all the answers. Your local public safety and emergency management representatives must be actively involved. The“experts” will likely be far away when a crisis strikes your school. We can respond to help you and may even be able to arrive later the same day, but your fire personnel, police officers and local county emergency manager will be by your side immediately. They must be involved in plan development or your plan will not work properly. Beware the vendor or consultant who has a ready-made plan for your district or offers to write the plan for you without the assistance of your local responders. Using a qualified consultant to guide you and your local public safety personnel can be very cost effective and productive. Good consultants will work with you to develop a plan that is tailored to the needs and resources of your schools.

Do Some Homework

It is also important to listen carefully to vendors and consultants. If you do not understand what you are being told, ask questions — it’s your money. Be sure you are listening to what you are being told. As with the security camera example, the extra features they suggest may be well worth the extra money. Also, carefully compare products offered by different companies. Carefully check out vendors and consultants. Ask for several names of people who have purchased the product, and contact them. Do not forget to ask about service after the sale. Don’t deal with disreputable vendors even if the product looks great.

Don’t Stop Talking

Once you have acquired new school safety technology, make sure the communication process continues. Meet with your public safety and emergency management representatives to ensure that they are aware of your new resources. Meet with all of them even if you don’t think they would be interested. For example, the fire department will need to become familiar with your new access control system.

Don’t forget the obvious need to educate students, staff and parents. A multiple-victim weapons assault recently took place at an elementary school with a new, top-of-the-line access control system. The assailant gained access to the school after a parent followed a staff member through a door. The parent then held the door open for the assailant.

Today’s school administrators face many school safety challenges. Fortunately, there is a cornucopia of wares to help create a safer learning environment. By involving stakeholders in defining needs, seeking assistance from local safety experts and creating an open dialogue, these challenges can be met.

Michael S. Dorn serves as his state’s leading government school safety expert. He has presented at more than 100 state, national and international professional conferences, and has assisted more than 1,000 school districts and public safety agencies in all 50 states and several foreign countries. His latest book — School/Law Enforcement Partnerships, A Guide to Police Work In The School Setting — will be released by Ram Publishing this summer.


According to the National School Safety Center, there are two kinds of school administrators: those who have faced a crisis and those who are about to. The issue of school safety has dominated the news for the past several years and is a top-level agenda item for legislators, school administrators, teachers and parents. While schools can’t prevent all crimes from occurring, there are measures administrators can implement to improve security and prepare for crisis on the school grounds. As a result, new strategies are being explored to address this national concern and increase the level of protection.

One strategy encourages the development of security plans, including the creation of security committees, trained in prevention and response to human and non-human hazards like tornadoes, hurricanes, hostage situations and student violence. Improved security and increased adult presence and supervision on school grounds are important to this plan, but the ability of staff members to communicate effectively is key to keeping a solid plan intact.

A strong communication system enables staff to respond quickly during a crisis and, potentially, deter a crisis from developing. A popular tool being used by many schools is the two-way radio, which offers a cost-effective, easy-to-operate solution that keeps administrators, teachers and staff in constant contact with one another.

Campus access control, establishment of an emergency communications system and supervision of hallways, playgrounds, restrooms and other potential trouble spots are areas where two-way radios can help enhance a school safety plan. Two-way radios allow security patrols to communicate easily with administrators and other staff, and allow the main office to stay in constant contact with teachers in the classrooms.

Controlling access to parking lots and school buildings decreases vandalism and the ability of unauthorized people to enter school grounds. Security personnel who are equipped with two-way radios can respond quickly and efficiently to such situations. With the touch of a button, security officers can call for assistance and advise administrators of potentially dangerous situations. Also, linking classrooms and schoolyard supervisors with the main office, security or even the school nurse through two-way radios can save valuable time in the case of an emergency .

Many schools don’t have the luxury of a large budget to install a high-tech security system. Unlike other communications solutions like pagers and cellular phones, two-way radios have a one-time cost and do not incur monthly charges or service fees. In addition, two-way radios are so easy to use that extensive and costly training is not needed.

As school administrators work to improve security and safety in their schools, they need to equip personnel with the tools needed to communicate effectively on a day-to-day basis, as well as in times of crisis. While communication is an integral part of any solution, it’s important that school personnel be trained to recognize certain hazards and warning signs, and understand how to respond to them in a way that will best control the situation.

Frank Myers is the general manager/vice president of Motorola’s Consumer Products Division.