Keys to Emergency Operations Planning Success

The government school safety center where I work has formally evaluated more than 2,000 school emergency operations plans during the past four years. Our unit has also responded to more than 300 school emergency situations. We have seen a direct correlation between common weaknesses in emergency operations plans and incidents of plan failure that have been noted in many critical situations at schools. Understanding that many of the plans used by schools around the nation have either been purchased as a“plan in a can,” developed by consultants with no background in emergency management, or are merely slightly modified copies of another school’s plan, the same plan flaws are common in most of these school emergency operations plans. This month’s column will address ways to avoid the most common problems that lead to plan failure.

All Hazards Approach

A good school emergency operations plan should address a wide range of potential emergency situations. Often, plans are developed with too much of a focus on rare acts of mass violence, such as a shooting rampage, while ignoring other types of situations that can occur. Plans should address natural disasters, utility failure, accidents, fire, hazardous materials, radiological incidents and other such situations, as well as intentional acts like bomb threats and acts of violence.

Avoid Combining a Prevention Plan and an Emergency Operations Plan

Commonly, plans contain a mix of prevention measures and steps of action for emergency situations. A school administrator who has a fire raging in his or her building does not have time to wade through pages of information on how to prevent a fire. Instead, that administrator needs concise information that outlines what to do during an actual event.

A Solid Plan is Customized to Fit the Needs of Local Schools and Resources of the Local Community

While busy school officials may desire a“cookie cutter” plan that allows them to fill in the blanks with little time expended, these easy-to-use plans will rarely, if ever, be sufficient for a major crisis. While a purchased or copied plan may serve as a useful template or starting point, a viable plan is developed with meaningful input from all public safety, educational and community resource agencies and departments who would actually respond during a crisis.

Logical and Clear User-Friendly Format

The plan should be designed to allow staff members under extreme stress to locate critical information in a hurry. A surprising number of plans do not have an index, or have an index that does not match the information in the plan. Color-coded sections and large-font page numbers can help make the plan easy to use.

Solid Content

Plans often contain weak content, with statements like “develop an emergency evacuation plan.” In this instance, the evacuation plan should have been completed in advance and should have been included in the plan. Content should provide clear steps to be taken in a logical sequence.

Current Content

Information in the plan should be current. This requires attention to detail and an annual update of all emergency contact information, photographs, schematics and other information that can become out of date.

Matching Components

A startling number of plans contain conflicting information. Information in the master plan, site procedures, flip charts, software tracking system, CD ROM, Web–based versions, items posted in classrooms and any other components should not contain any contradictory information. The most common situation involves the addition of a supplemental component that is copied from another school or purchased from a vendor.

Comprehensive and Detailed

While plans should be clear and concise, they must provide enough detail to provide guidance during catastrophic events. Suffice to say that while flip charts are one of the most valuable plan components available, they are woefully inadequate as a complete plan for most schools.

Incident Command and Emergency Communications

School plans should incorporate the incident command structure and system in use by the local public safety community. When this is not done, conflict and confusion frequently result during a major event. Many communication problems can be significantly reduced through the use of incident command. Alternate means of communications should also be carefully considered in planning, as well as when training staff.

Plans Should Cover Incidents Before, During and After School Hours

Plans should address how incidents can be handled when limited numbers of staff members are on hand. Special attention should be paid to school bus incidents, field trips, athletic events, dances, graduation ceremonies and other special events.

Address the Needs of Special Needs Persons

Consider communication and movement difficulties for students, staff, visitors and parents who do not speak English well, or who have emotional or physical limitations.


A solid plan provides back up personnel for all key roles and includes multiple prompts for key actions. Remember, many things can go wrong no matter how carefully you plan.

By paying special attention to these critical areas, the chances that a plan will work well under the most trying of circumstances will be greatly improved. Obviously, other issues such as plan distribution, testing of plans and regular refresher training for staff members is also necessary for emergency preparedness. Experience has shown that expending the time and energy to prepare will prove worthwhile when a crisis strikes.

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