Back to Basics

Some school systems have crisis management software systems. Others have sophisticated virtual tours of their schools, and then there are those that have conducted exercises with S.W.A.T teams practicing for extreme violence scenarios. Yet, some of these districts are less prepared for major crisis situations than school districts that have spent far less time and money on emergency preparedness measures.

This is true because these districts have focused too much on remote scenarios, rather than covering the basic core competency areas. Though common, the scenario-driven approach has proven to be extremely ineffective. Focusing on the basic and critical functional capabilities, rather than trying to prepare for specific and remote scenarios, is far more productive.

For example, until every building administrator and every member of a superintendent’s cabinet have completed formal training in the incident command system (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the most sophisticated tools available simply provide fancy graphics to a group of key officials who do not have the skills to properly use them. As one school official who worked with a district that had recently purchased a quarter million dollar emergency communications system told me,“We are now eminently prepared to communicate sheer chaos and panic in the event of any emergency.”

I have seen this issue with some of the nation’s largest districts. They have the benefit of some extremely robust technology tools, yet lack the basic essentials. I have also seen this in smaller but well-funded districts in affluent communities. For example, no matter how capable the S.W.A.T. team is in carrying out tactical rescue operations, if individual school employees do not have role-specific plan components, such as flip charts that are specific to the functions of different types of employees, like custodians, teachers, bus drivers and other personnel, the actual performance of public safety officials in a major crisis will be impeded.

There are hundreds of districts that have participated in the“cop-show” type of exercise that looked good to the media and to the untrained observer but are little help to school officials. And while these exercises do a lot to help prepare law enforcement tactical team personnel for extreme violence scenarios in schools, they often don’t help school crisis teams as much as other types of exercises could. For example, if rank and file employees are not ready to move, shelter in place, lock down and evacuate large numbers of students to off-campus sites, even the best police tactical team will find many challenges if they ever need to conduct a tactical rescue operation. Coming from a background of two decades of law enforcement experience, followed by five years working full-time in emergency management and antiterrorism, I have seen the issue of school emergency preparedness from a few different angles. Law enforcement officers naturally tend to focus on readiness for law enforcement situations and typically do so very well.

While law enforcement is a valuable component to the “all hazards” approach to school safety and emergency preparedness, most school safety issues and crisis situations are not crime related. This is one reason it is sometimes counterproductive to conduct violence-based school safety exercises until after other, more likely, scenarios have been gamed out. For example, we coordinated an exercise involving more than 15,000 participants in one of the nation’s largest school systems. As with any properly conducted, full-scale exercise, it followed an 18-month process involving a series of school-based drills, tabletop exercises, and a complex and difficult functional exercise, which included thousands of building administrators, crisis team members and central office staff. The district focused on hazardous materials incidents for the final exercise because there are likely more hazmat incidents affecting schools each year than all “active shooter” incidents in the history of American education. The staff members in this district are now much better prepared to handle not only a hazardous materials incident, but a major incident of violence or any act of terrorism that might occur, because the emphasis has been on emergency functions rather than one specific and remote scenario.

Be sure you are devoting time and resources effectively in your emergency preparedness efforts. If you would like to quickly evaluate your emergency preparedness measures, conduct a free 20-minute self evaluation of your organization’s preparedness measures by completing the School Crisis Planning checklist 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