Are You Ready? Basics of Emergency Operations Planning

It starts as a typical day, evening or night. Then a disaster shatters the normal campus routine. The calamity could be a tornado, a fire, an accident or an act of violence. No matter how safe your setting, a disaster can occur at any time. The amount of damage done, the extent of civil liability and possibly the number of lives that are lost may be dictated by the effectiveness of your emergency operations planning. The steps that are taken long before the crisis unfolds determine how well it is handled.

Plan Basics

While it is tempting to purchase a ready-made crisis plan, a “plan in a can” typically fails to serve effectively during a major incident. Only a comprehensive, locally tailored plan, developed and tested with the assistance of local public safety officials, works during a major event. This approach requires time and effort, but the legal and moral obligation to provide a safe learning environment mandates this level of preparation.

The first step in emergency operations planning is to make contact with your local emergency management agency. A primary function of emergency management is to help local institutions and organizations prepare to handle crisis situations. This agency helps to coordinate the public safety response during a major disaster. Involving emergency management in the early stages of plan development helps avoid the creation of plans that are in conflict with community emergency operations guidelines. The emergency management agency can also help to coordinate planning assistance from other local agencies.

The next step in the process is to involve representatives from all relevant internal departments, local public safety and area public service agencies. Any department or organization that may be called upon to provide support should be involved. Some examples might include physical plant, university police, student services, local law enforcement agencies, American Red Cross, fire department and hospital emergency room staff. If a department, agency or organization would be needed for support during a crisis, a representative should be asked to help with plan development. A crisis is no time to decide how various disciplines can work together. An experienced consultant who is willing to work through and with your local experts may be helpful.

Next Steps

The representatives should then be formed into a planning team. The team must be tasked with specific goals and timelines to develop a realistic and thorough plan to deal with any type of disaster that could reasonably affect the institution. Particular emphasis should be given to those situations that might be of special concern in your region.

A “master” or “base” plan should be developed for the entire institution that includes fundamental procedures such as evacuations and locking down facilities. In addition, specific protocols should be developed for each type of situation. Protocols should address incidents on and near all properties owned or leased by the institution, as well as major incidents that occur in close proximity. Plans must address incidents taking place at any time of the day and on any day of the year, including holidays. Protocols should address incidents that affect students and staff who are on field trips, at athletic events or other off-campus functions. Special needs persons must be covered in planning efforts. It is also important that every key assignment should have a backup person designated to perform critical functions.

Tailor Your Plan

Once the master protocols have been completed, supplemental components can be developed. These can include emergency flip charts, checklists to make sure that major functions are performed, crisis event tracking logs to record the time and names of personnel who perform all significant tasks, disk-based event tracking systems and CD-ROM-based systems to include all compiled information on one disk. Building schematics, photographs and video clips can be stored with the plan and on CD-ROM; they can be extremely helpful during a crisis.

With every component, simplicity, reliability and redundancy are key considerations. Every component should be so simple that a child can find any significant information quickly. Remember: Murphy’s Law frequently applies during catastrophic events.

Once the master protocols are finished, site-specific procedures should be developed for each building and department in the institution. These procedures spell out exactly how the protocols will be carried out by different segments of the campus community. For example, the master protocol would state when a building should be evacuated and certain standard evacuation practices. Additionally, the art department would have a procedure for evacuation of all building occupants to specific locations.

Once this step has been completed, copies of the plan can be printed and distributed to appropriate personnel in each department and building, and all employees can be trained on their roles during a crisis. It should be noted that emergency operations plans should never be publicly posted on the Internet. Making it easy for potential offenders to review how you would respond could increase the chances of a planned assault and put the safety of responding personnel at risk.

Test Your Plan

Plans that have never been tested through an appropriate exercise or a real event are still theoretical. Work with local and state emergency management officials to conduct appropriate tests to ensure that your plans will work during a disaster.

Through a coordinated approach, dedication to the task, proper training of personnel and appropriate evaluation of plans, you can be prepared if the unthinkable happens. The reputation of your school, enormous civil liability that can ensue and, most importantly, the safety of students and staff require that you be ready to face chaos.

Michael S. Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He can be reached at .

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