One Step at a Time

Part of my work with a client district, under a U.S. Department of Education school crisis planning grant, is to help them internalize the capacity to work with local and state emergency management officials to design, coordinate, conduct and evaluate emergency exercises. During one of our first training sessions, we discussed the inherent dangers and inefficiency involved when a progressive exercise program is not used while conducting drills and exercises. During lunch, a group of school district police officers informed me that the local police department had already conducted one full-scale school exercise and was scheduled to conduct another in a few weeks. These officers also stated that the police department was not using the emergency management model, and had not preceded the full-scale exercise with drills, tabletop and functional exercises. The first exercise had gone poorly.

Two police officers have died during botched exercises in the same state in recent years, and one of these tragedies occurred at a school exercise, school police personnel were already concerned prior to our training session. When the second exercise was conducted, several students were injured due to inadequate planning and safeguards. Fortunately, the client district included cabinet level personnel in the most recent training session, and they are taking corrective action. They are using their grant to improve emergency preparedness.

Unfortunately, not every district is taking such a hard look at how they prepare for major crisis situations. School and public safety officials still misunderstand the exercise process and conduct exercises improperly, causing even more problems than the exercises are supposed to prevent. Improperly designed, coordinated, conducted and evaluated exercises can be extremely dangerous, sometimes resulting in needless litigation and significant embarrassment for school and public safety officials. Botched exercises also degrade the confidence of staff and public safety officials in their organization’s abilities to respond effectively to a major crisis.

I have been involved with hundreds of school emergency exercises, and have seen them done extremely well when participating officials use the proven emergency management methodologies. I have also heard enough horror stories to fill this magazine when those same methodologies were not used.

To adequately prepare for a major school crisis situation, communities must use a progressive exercise program to test their plans and afford personnel the opportunity to practice and evaluate their emergency procedures. By following the proven formula developed by emergency management experts through the years, the benefits of the exercise process can be attained without the pitfalls that occur when people operate outside of their field of expertise.

Here are a few of the more important points to consider:

— School emergency operations plans are mere theory until tested by a series of progressive and appropriate exercises or a real crisis. Using the exercise process to find flaws and address them before a crisis occurs is obviously preferable. Communities are not adequately prepared to face a major school crisis until they have used an appropriate and properly conducted series of exercises.

— The exercise process is an emergency management field of expertise. Consultants, law enforcement and school officials who have not had formal training and work experience in exercise design, are not qualified to design conduct and evaluate exercises without assistance from those who have the proper experience and formal training.

— Full-scale exercises should never be attempted without orientation meetings, drills, tabletops and, preferably, at least one functional exercise taking place beforehand. Ordinarily, it takes 12 to 18 months of preparation to conduct a safe and effective full-scale exercise. (A full-scale exercise is a simulation of a crisis using role players and actual deployment of personnel and equipment.)

— Exercises should be designed with specific goals in mind and ordinarily conducted after the emergency operations plan has been developed.

School and emergency response officials owe it to themselves and the people under their protection to prepare for major crisis situations using exercises. Properly implemented progressive exercise programs have been credited with saving many lives. By drawing on the proven methods developed by emergency management professionals, they can do so effectively and safely. Educators can’t afford not to use this life-saving approach to school emergency preparedness.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Exercise Design manual, United States Department of Education’s Practical Information on Crisis Planning: a Guide for Schools and Communities and Jane’s Safe School Planning Guide for All Hazards served as source documents for this column.

MICHAEL S. DORN has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for 23 years and now serves as the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. 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