Improving Your Emergency/Crisis Response Plan

“We should never become complacent and say that we have everything covered,” says Edward A. Clarke, director of School Safety and Security for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Rockville, Md., referring to his district’s emergency/crisis plan.“We’re always looking to have continuous improvement in both academics and safety, and security. We all collectively want to get better all the time.”

And continually improve is exactly what this district does, not only because Clarke takes his job of protecting administrators, teachers, staff and students seriously, but because the district has made a commitment to continuous improvement. As a result, MCPS, one of the 20 largest school districts (140,000 students) in the United States, is becoming well known for its model emergency/crisis response plan.

Where to Start

Clarke readily acknowledges that 9/11 was the turning point for MCPS.“Clearly, that propelled us to improve. It was mandated by the superintendent that we re-evaluate both our systemwide emergency/crisis response plan and our school-based emergency/crisis response plan. We always had a systemwide plan in place, but we refined it, improved it and added a lot of depth to the various positions to actually carry out the different stages of the plan.”

For both the systemwide emergency/crisis response plan and the school-based emergency/crisis response plan, MCPS uses the Incident Command System model, a nationally recognized public safety emergency/crisis management model. It is used by FEMA and is used extensively in fire and rescue operations and by law enforcement.

“The Incident Command System is our foundation for our emergency planning efforts,” says Clarke. “We have a designated incident commander. We have an operations team, logistics team, planning team and finance/administration team. Under all four of those teams, we have designated personnel assigned to various roles and responsibilities. We’re cross trained, so we have three people assigned to those roles.”

The district’s plan also employs a crisis management planning model recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. That model includes three phases: readiness, response and recovery. “Those phases are so critical to a successful emergency/crisis model plan that they all need to be incorporated,” says Clarke. More information about this model can be found at .

In fact, MCPS used the crisis management planning model to write a grant request, which was awarded last October and has allowed the district to build on what’s already in place. Here’s how.

1. The grant is allowing the district to improve communication with the entire community by producing training tapes and brochures in a variety of languages for parents, community members and students in terms of what they need to do in the event of an emergency or crisis. “We’re looking to better inform our parent community of what we have in place to build their confidence and allow them to feel secure that, in the event of a multitude of crises or emergencies, we’re ready to take care of their children,” says Clarke.

2. The grant is allowing the district to develop additional training for staff and community members. “We have trained a large number of school-based staff within the district,” Clarke notes. “We offer a basic, three-hour orientation to emergency crisis management every year. We also offer an enhanced version of emergency crisis preparedness training.”

3. The grant is allowing the district to enhance its communication capabilities. “We have portable classrooms on our campuses, and we wanted to make sure we had the ability to communicate from the main office to those classrooms,” says Clarke. “With the grant, we were able to buy two-way radios for the portables.”

4. The grant is allowing the district to increase physical security. The entrances from the schools to the portable classrooms are now more secure because students use swipe cards to gain entrance.

5. The grant is allowing the district to improve a local partnership. “We know that, in an immediate crisis, communication is critical,” says Clarke. “We’re working with our police chief, fire administrator and county executives. We have been given the authorization to be connected to the county government’s public safety communication system on a limited basis. We have direct communication capability with fire and rescue service and local law enforcement services in the event of a crisis. This is a big asset in any kind of a crisis.”

In addition to employing the two models mentioned above, Clarke recommends the following avenues as starting points for improving your district’s emergency/crisis response plan.

1. Network with other school districts that have a plan in place. “Look at the core elements of their plans, and adopt those elements to your school district’s needs,” Clarke says. “Don’t try to take their plans and make them work for your district.”

2. Network with public safety professionals. “If you don’t have plans, network with public safety professionals to get them involved in the development, implementation and practicing of your plan,” says Clarke. “You can do this regardless of your district’s size or location in the country.”

3. Work with the U.S. Department of Education. “This organization is a great source of information,” says Clarke. “Follow their model — it’s there for you to use. I can’t say enough about that.” Go to , and click on “administrators” to find a wealth of information and resources.

4. Call on neighboring school districts that may be recognized as experts. “Ask for their help, and ask questions,” Clarke says. “One thing is sure: We are all in this together. In an emergency or crisis, we all have to deal with it. We’re all willing to share information and best practices, and it doesn’t cost anything to do that.”

Building Your Emergency/Crisis Response Plan

As you begin to improve your emergency/crisis response plan, here are elements included in the MCPS plan that may be of value to you.

1. Use a code system. In addition to the Incident Command System model, MCPS uses a three-part code system. “Code Red identifies imminent danger inside or outside a school building. It requires us to go immediately to lockdown status within the building,” says Clarke. Code Blue alerts staff that an emergency/crisis exists at or near an MCPS facility. It requires all students to be accounted for and under supervision. Code Blue gives a principal greater accountability and flexibility during an emergency/crisis. For example, if a principal was informed that there was a suspect at large in the community, he could call a Code Blue. If the suspect came onto the school property, the principal could go to Code Red. “We now have a Code Blue Shelter-In-Place protocol for securing buildings in the event of a chemical, biological or radiological incident, or in the event of weather-related emergencies,” says Clarke.

2. Implement an Educational Facilities Officer Program. MCPS uses uniformed police officers in several schools and, says Clarke, they will ultimately add more officers. “It’s a very big resource for us. They are trained in our school district’s emergency response protocols. They understand their roles and responsibilities and will be a critical link in the event of an emergency or crisis.”

3. Employ training tapes. As mentioned above, the district is using videotapes for training administrators, teachers, parents, students and community members in a variety of security-related topics.

4. Implement a continuing education program. Once staff is trained, continuing education allows them to review existing material and be updated on changes and new policies and procedures.

5. Conduct practice drills. “We always must be as prepared as we can be,” says Clarke. One way MCPS stays prepared is through emergency drills. For example, they have four Code Red and Code Blue drills throughout the school year. The Educational Facilities Officers are active participants in the preparedness drills. Finally, a critical evaluation is completed after every drill.

6. Be attentive to your administrators. “The truth is, regardless of where you’re located, administrators are the first responders in the event of an emergency or crisis,” observes Clarke. “The decisions they make in the first couple of minutes are critical to the successful outcome of the situation, as it may be 10 minutes, 20 minutes or longer until law enforcement or fire/rescue personnel get there.” He notes that administrators know that creating a safe and secure learning environment is a big part of their job, so giving them additional resources, tools and strategies to make them better prepared for a variety of situations is important. “They need to know that there are plans in place to support them from school district level and community level.”

7. Develop and maintain good relationships with local government. “I always say this: You can’t wait until the day of an emergency or crisis to start developing relationships or to develop an emergency response plan,” Clarke says firmly. “Both of those things need to be in place before an emergency or crisis. We have dedicated professionals in our county, and we have an outstanding relationship with our county government.”

Clarke also notes that the county’s Emergency Management core group uses the same emergency/crisis model. Additionally, working with the county has afforded the district a seat at the county’s emergency management table. “We have a designated liaison to Montgomery County’s emergency management team. Our district provides shelter sites in the event of a community-wide emergency, and we can provide school system resources if they need to respond to a mitigating crisis situation.”

8. Communicate with your parents. “We have to share reasonable information with our parents about our emergency crisis planning efforts because parents need to feel their children are looked out for every day and that they come to school to learn in a safe environment,” says Clarke. “We work with our parent community to say that, in the event of an emergency/crisis, the first several minutes are so critical, please allow the principal and the team time to respond to that situation. We instruct them to go to the local school’s or the school system’s Websites, use the telephone tree or look for critical information at . One way we communicate with parents is by speaking at PTA meetings and inviting PTA representatives to attend our training sessions. Information is very powerful when you put it in the hands of parents.”

9. Implement a school-based crisis team. “Our program, like most plans, requires each school to have a school-based crisis emergency response team,” says Clarke. “We call it our On-Site Emergency Team (OSET), and it is modeled after the Incident Command System. Various duties are spelled out by both primary and secondary duties, and the principal is the commander and primary decision maker.”

10. Format a multihazard approach. In developing emergency/crisis plans, Clarke advises against preparing for just one type of emergency/crisis. Rather, he suggests taking a multihazard approach and preparing for several types of emergencies, like intruders; inclement weather; chemical, biological or radiological events; and loss of power.

11. Include recovery plans. “Another component to improve upon is recovery,” says Clarke. “And that is: How do we get schools ready for and back into the education business after an emergency/crisis? The whole mental health component is important, so we have to get good information to teachers about the affects of stress on students.”

12. Conduct a review after every incident. “Every time we have a serious incident, we take the opportunity to review that incident,” notes Clarke. “We have a constructive debriefing with all the parties involved to evaluate how well we did and for the lessons learned. I think this is so critical. Sometimes we assume that we did a good job, but when we’re able to evaluate how well we did in an objective setting, we find that there’s always room for improvement.

“We can’t anticipate every level of emergency or crisis, but we can teach good decision making, good leadership skills and good communication skills that have to be used in an emergency or crisis situation,” says Clarke. To encourage this level of attention to detail, he stresses his Five P Squared formula during training exercises: Poor Planning Produces Pitiful Performance; Proper Planning Produces Positive Performance.