The Maginot Line

Monday was a busy day as a group of second graders were making their way along the nature trail behind the school with their teacher. A fifth grade class had just departed on a bus for a field trip to a local museum, and still another group of children were in the cafeteria listening to a career day presentation by a local bank president.

At 10:12, the deadly cloud drifted slowly towards the elementary school. Every child and teacher at the school was in imminent danger as the toxic cloud began to make its way to the campus. At 10:15, the principal notified Mrs. Johnson to activate the school crisis team — he had just been notified by the local emergency management agency that a tanker truck had been involved in an accident about one-half mile from the school. He had been advised to shelter the children in place, as the deadly chemicals would reach the school before an evacuation to a safe area could be carried out.

Within minutes, the crisis team was assembled and began to discuss the situation. They immediately realized that there were several serious problems with their emergency operations plan. The plan did not include a“shelter-in-place” protocol. Furthermore, the staff had no guidance to address the situation with the bus that might be headed right into the cloud. A team member pointed out that a teacher and a group of students were out of the building for an activity on the nature trail. Team members began to experience frustration and panic as they realized that they were woefully unprepared for the deadly situation. People in the school and in the bus could be in grave danger in a few minutes.

Fortunately, the above scenario is simply part of a functional exercise that I recently conducted to help school crisis team members test their emergency operations plans and hone their skills in simulated crisis conditions. As previously mentioned in this column, the most carefully developed and detailed emergency operations plans are still mere theory until they are tested by a real event or with appropriate emergency operations exercises. Serving as the lead technical expert for one of the nation’s largest government school safety centers, which has responded to more than 300 public and private school crisis situations around the nation, has been revealing. These experiences have driven home the point that very few schools have viable emergency operations plans. Even more so, these incidents, my training sessions, and the review of many emergency operations plans from around the nation, have impressed upon me that many school and public safety officials are significantly overconfident in their prevention strategies and level of preparedness for crisis situations.

Being a history buff, I sometimes use the example of the Maginot Line in France as an analogy. French political and military leaders were so confident in the ability of their complex and carefully prepared fortifications, they were blind to the risks to France from a German invasion, even though a German officer wrote and was published on the concept that would eventually be used for the successful assault on France. The huge and well-equipped French army would be overwhelmed by the attack when a basic flaw was not identified and corrected. One of the most powerful nations in Europe would fall and French blood would be spilled due to this oversight.

On a smaller scale, the safety of many school children and educators is reliant on flawed prevention and preparedness concepts. Dependence upon untested theory, when there exist proven ways to test our systems, is like playing Russian roulette with the lives of school children. Experience and careful research illustrates that criminal incidents, bullying and hazardous conditions often remain undetected in our schools. Most student firearm violations are not detected, and too many children have been bullied in a school bathroom outside the awareness of school officials.

Unless and until serious efforts to evaluate the danger level in a school are completed, the real level of safety is in question. I have rarely conducted a tactical site survey of a school where hazardous conditions were not discovered so they could be corrected. Tactical Site Surveys should be completed in each school every year. In the same manner, annual surveys of students and staff are one of the most reliable ways to identify risk before someone gets hurt.

On the preparedness side of the house, appropriate emergency operations exercises should be conducted annually AFTER the emergency operations plan has been developed. Initially, only drills, tabletop exercises and functional exercises should be used (see April, 2000 column — Mock Crisis Exercises — Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse) before moving on to full-scale exercises. A properly designed full-scale exercise takes six to 18 months of preparation, and students should not be used as role players. Make sure that the exercise is coordinated by someone with experience in the field of emergency management and is evaluated by external personnel. And, most importantly, determine what specific areas of your plan are to be tested.

You can evaluate efforts respond to crisis situations and reduce the odds that your plan will be needed. Don’t find yourself in the terrible situation that many of your colleagues have faced because of simple oversights. Make sure that history does not repeat itself in your schools.

Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for 23 years. He has authored 14 books, lectures frequently across the nation and has provided consultation and technical assistance to more than 2,000 public safety agencies and learning institutions worldwide. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at