How Safe Are Your Child Care Programs?

Each year, millions of parents dread taking their child to a child care center for the first time; the guilt tugging at their hearts as they leave their baby in the care of others. Many of these parents rely on day care services provided by K-12 schools. For example, there are more than 300 childcare programs in K-12 schools in the state of Georgia. Fortunately, most children settle into this new routine without anguish and many parents take comfort in knowing that the safety of their child is at the forefront of every childcare providers’ agenda. Or is it?

A Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation showed that two-thirds of day care centers surveyed exhibited safety hazards such as insufficient child-safety gates and dangerous playgrounds. In 1997 alone, 31,000 children — ages four and younger — were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries sustained in child care or school settings. Even more troubling, according to the same study, more than 55 children have died while in childcare settings.

Providing safe environments is paramount for the childcare provider. Statistics reveal that of the 21 million children under the age of six in the U.S., almost 13 million spend part of the day in day care. Yet, alarming evidence reveals that two-thirds of the licensed day care facilities continue to exhibit a variety of safety hazards. Accounting for the safety and security of our nation’s future is indeed a great expectation, but viable through careful planning.

Creating a safe haven for childcare settings and youth-based organizations requires a little patience and a lot of planning. However, the result will be a safer program and a process that will prove to be worth its weight in gold during a crisis incident. No matter what type or size the organization, every daycare center or school should have a well thought out prevention strategy and a comprehensive emergency operations plan. These efforts can mean the difference between lives lost and saved.

When planning to prevent and respond to the unthinkable for any facility occupied by youth, ensure that many facets of the community are involved. In doing so, consider who the“experts” in their fields are. Unfortunately, when the word“expert” is mentioned, people tend to imagine great motivational speakers with equally great fees for service. Fortunately, every community has local authorities that are free of charge. Upon gathering the crème de la crème of local experts, begin by bringing the local public safety community to the planning table. These specialists consist of fire personnel, law enforcement and other security officials. Also, consider involving the local emergency manager for the community. Indeed, this individual is a valuable team member who can help you identify community hazards. For example, if a railroad system or major highway is near your facility, the local emergency management agency can provide you with valuable insight into the types of chemicals or other hazards that are transported on these systems. He/she can also supply you with assistance in developing the necessary protocols to adequately respond to the hazards that may surround your facility. The emergency manager in your community should have an active involvement in every step of the planning process. Finally, when deciding about other potential community representatives that should be brought to the “planning table” ask yourself, “what people can help us reduce risk?” and “who would respond to my facility should an incident occur?” Write down your answers to this question and begin a list of people to call for input.

Once the planning team is established, identify the mission. In other words, if someone handed you a check for safety, what would you do first? What would be the second most critical need and so on? The answers to those questions should become the mission of the team. Not only will the mission help keep everyone on course; it will also serve as goals. Also, if parents want to know what your safety goals are for your facility, you can use your mission to build awareness about the safety issues that concern your organization. Remember that no matter what goals are identified, developing a preventive safety plan and an emergency operations plan should be at the top of the list. Be sure to develop separate prevention and emergency operations plans. When a fire is raging in your building, staff will not have time to wade through six pages of information on fire prevention. Instead, they should be able to immediately access step-by-step directions for what to do during a fire. If your organization already has prevention and emergency operations plans, it may be most practical to develop an annex to the existing plan to address childcare programs.

As the plans are developed, ensure that all hazards are identified. Everything from a tornado to irate parents should be addressed. Think of issues such as how will you evacuate infants or even newborns if this is the reality of your facility. Anyone that has ever walked with a toddler can attest that great speed is not going to be attained without help. Indeed, investing in evacuation strollers or other equipment to help children get to safety quickly will be well worth the money. Also, think about those in the facility with special needs? Don’t forget to plan for extended periods of time either locked in the classroom or at a remote location. The emergency operations plan should call for evacuation kits containing cookies, crackers or other nonperishable foods. Or perhaps teachers will need to pack coloring books and crayons to help keep the children occupied. Extra diapers, wet-wipes and training pants should also be included. Talk to the teachers and staff. Ask them what they will need to maintain order amidst chaos for their group of youngsters. Remember, a hazard can be anything that could impede your safety efforts. Be sure to consider critical medications for events where children must be evacuated for extended periods of time.

If you are unsure of what kinds of hazards to look for, a tactical site survey can help assess your facility. This is simply a “walk-through” of the building in search of safety hazards and emergency response preplanning evaluation of you facility, grounds and surrounding neighborhood using a multidisciplinary team approach. The multidisciplinary team offers diversity and the type of complex thought process that allow for a comprehensive analysis of a facility. The variety of disciplines that should be involved include: education, security, law enforcement, fire service, emergency medical service and emergency management. There are many advantages of including public safety and maintenance personnel on the site survey team. That step helps to ensure that critical areas and control mechanisms are identified. For example, a law enforcement officer on the team may indicate that police tactical personnel would need to know where the power main is located in the event of a hostage situation. Second, fire service personnel will want to know the location of the fire sprinkler system control valves.

Finally, maintenance personnel will be able to indicate where these items are located in the building. You will find the technical expertise from all of these individuals to be a value added benefit. Tactical site surveys are also one of the most valuable prevention and pre-incident planning measures available. They are a main foundation for any effective safety program. Consider conducting a tactical site survey before purchasing security hardware such as security cameras or access control systems. A tactical site survey may discover information that could be used to identify key locations to place the equipment or uncover areas on the facility to closely monitor. Incidentally, tactical site surveys should be used to help determine the best use of other assets such as anti-bullying curricula, multicultural program data, employee theft reduction and other specific crime reduction programs. There are a number of other reasons for conducting tactical site surveys including the following.

    • To identify easily corrected safety hazards.

    • To accurately identify unfilled gaps in the safety program.

    • To heighten awareness about safety in the facility.

    • To offer your staff, public safety and emergency management officials an opportunity to work together and build strong working relationships before a disaster strikes.

    • To document efforts by the child care facility, public safety and emergency management officials to enhance school safety.

    • To afford public safety and emergency management officials a chance to become more familiar with your facilities in the event they ever need to respond to an emergency.

Items such as locks, signage, weapons, policies and other general safety concerns are closely and carefully assessed. For more information on tactical site surveys, read School Safety Essentials: Tactical Site Surveys by LRP Publishing.

Providing a safe and secure environment for children requires a great deal of planning and preparation. But these efforts should not be performed in a vacuum. Include local public safety experts, staff and parents to create the safest environment possible. The safety of precious little children is in your hands. You cannot afford to let them down.

Sonayia Shepherd is the chief operatingoOfficer for Safe Havens International, Inc. She has co-authored three books on school safety and presents nationally for conferences, educational facilities and youth-based organizations .She is a widely recognized expert on emergency operations planning, crisis response and conducting tactical site surveys for schools and childcare programs. She may be reached through the Safe Havens web site at .