When Lives Are at Stake: Developing 3D Emergency Operations Plans

In light of the Virginia Tech tragedy — the third-largest violent loss of life on an American campus — many institutions are reevaluating their emergency operations plans. In the past decade, tremendous advancements have been made on American campuses towards emergency preparedness, yet many are still woefully unprepared for major crisis events. Even some of the nation’s largest universities are seriously lacking, despite considerable expenditures on emergency preparedness measures. How can campus officials ensure that they are up to the best practices in emergency preparedness while continuing to identify and close the gaps that can lead to plan failure? The answer lies in evaluating plans to ensure they are three-dimensional (3D) and designed to work well during fast-moving and chaotic situations.

Design Plans to be Easily Utilized

People often lose a considerable amount of cognitive reasoning ability under the stress of an incident, and staff may not be able to function if plans are not designed to be user-friendly and then practiced properly. For example, if key staff fail to take the emergency evacuation kit out of the building with them every time they conduct a fire drill, they will most likely forget to take the kit under the stress of a real incident because they have unintentionally conditioned themselves to leave the kit behind. To have 3D plans, staff and students should only practice exactly what you would want them to do under stress. As a practical and simple example, blocked access fire drills should be used to condition students and staff to think on their feet during fire evacuations.

Adapt the Emergency Management Plan

Emergency preparedness is a formal discipline. Unfortunately, many school preparedness plans are not developed on an emergency model. Common flaws, such as the use of code phrases, easily patterned bomb threat procedures, and plans that are not customized for various types of employees can often lead to critical plan failure. This is one reason we have seen so many campus crises spin out of control. It is crucial that emergency management practitioners play a key role in the development, evaluation, testing, and updating of school preparedness plans.

Design Plans Based on the Four-Phase Model

A proper campus crisis plan addresses the four phases of emergency management in distinct plan sections. (See the sidebar) Past experience shows that failing to develop any one of these sections can result in plan failure and even death. For more information on the four-phase best practices model, see the article titled“Four Phases All Hazards Planning for Schools” (under“free resources”) at www.safehavensinternational.org.

Design Plans Based On an All-Hazards Approach

The emergency management model emphasizes an all-hazards approach, but many plans are “Cop Plans” that are law-enforcement- and security-heavy. While violence is not a leading cause of death at institutions of higher learning, many plans are focused on violence, excluding other more common, and sometimes catastrophic, types of events like hazardous materials incidents. Ensure that your plans reflect all types of hazards for your region, including traffic accidents, natural disasters, fires, violence, and terrorism, rather than only what has been highlighted by the media.

In the past year we have surveyed more than 100,000 conference attendees, and only seven reported a multiple-victim campus shooting in their community during their entire career (representing a total of four incidents), while several thousand reported schools impacted by chemical spills and other hazardous materials incidents. If you focus more time and energy on lockdown procedures, training, and drills than procedures to protect staff and students from much more common and equally deadly chemical incidents, your plans are probably out of balance.

Design the Plan to Work at All Levels

A best-practices plan integrates plan components that provide distinct direction for key roles in the organization. For example, most colleges and universities should have one set of emergency reference charts for administrators and crisis team members, another for faculty, one for support staff, another specific to custodians, and another for resident advisors. If your plan attempts to guide all these divergent types of job categories with one set of guidelines, it will not be adequate for a catastrophic event.

Incorporate and Implement NIMS

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a resource and information management system that allows campus and public safety officials to quickly gain control of crises by establishing effective crisis communications, command, and control; resource sharing; and prioritization of decision making. To be competent in handling a major catastrophic event, all key administrative staff (like the president, safety director/police chief, deans, department heads, and crisis team members) must receive formal training in NIMS, incorporate NIMS into their written plans, and practice utilizing NIMS during drills and exercises. If your organization is not compliant to this extent, it should become a major priority to move to this level. NIMS helps key staff effectively manage and communicate the most important decisions quickly and efficiently.

Design the Plan for Clear and Reliable Communications

Serious thought needs to be given to how information will flow within and between organizations during a crisis, taking into consideration the effects of stress on staff. Teaching staff to repeat critical communications back to the person making the communication (and practicing this way in drills) can go a long way towards reducing misunderstandings that can cause significant problems. Teaching staff how to overcome loud background noise when talking on radios and portable phones can be the difference between a five-minute public safety response and a ten-minute response.

Media protocols are very important. Planning for regular and brief press conferences for major events, conducting crisis media relations training, and developing written plans for those who are authorized to speak to the media is important. Including written guidelines in every employee’s emergency chart to emphasize not talking to the media, and how to refer the media to authorized personnel, is even more important. By allowing staff to practice these protocols during exercises, the written guidelines will become reality, reducing the chances that a staff member will conduct an unauthorized media interview.

The Virginia Tech tragedy demonstrates the importance of careful planning for crisis media communications strategies. In 100+ media interviews following the shooting, we experienced incredible pressure from reporters to pass judgment on the university police chief and president. While most reporters were professional and understood that it was too early to make such assessments, many were relentless and instead sought out other “experts” to quote to the contrary.

Develop the Plan with Local Public Safety Agencies

Many campus plans still lack meaningful input from all area law enforcement, fire service, emergency management, emergency medicine, and public health agencies. Their active participation during the planning phase is crucial. Documenting their participation can be a critical point if litigation relating to a safety incident ever occurs. It is a good idea to have a simple sign-off sheet for your plans with a place for each public safety agency to sign indicating they have had an opportunity to assist in the development of the plan.

Use Clear and Logical Formatting

Plans should be carefully formatted so that functional protocols (procedures for emergency functions, such as evacuation) are grouped together and incident-specific protocols (procedures for specific types of incidents, such as a fire) are grouped together. The use of plain-speak phrases rather than code words, color-coordinating plan sections, clear and large fonts, logical indexing, and other simple measures have all been shown to increase the success of a plan.

Build Redundancy into the Plan

The possibility of extreme stress and chaos creates a dire need for redundant planning. For example, each building should have at least one (and for larger buildings two) emergency evacuation kits, and there should be a primary and secondary person designated to take the kit during a crisis.

Integrate Emergency Preparedness into the Campus Culture

Paper plans are nearly useless unless all staff are trained on their implementation and practice the plan with a series of carefully coordinated drills and exercises. These should be designed to test plans, procedures, and equipment, not people. Drills should focus on critical functions like family reunification and NIMS rather than specific scenarios like past campus shootings.

Evaluate the Plan Using an Emergency Management Professional

In addition to testing plans through a progressive exercise program, a formally trained emergency manager not involved in the planning process should perform a critical plan review. While it is also important to have law enforcement, fire service, and security professionals review your plan, practitioners in these disciplines often lack formal training or experience in the specific field of emergency management. For a free emergency management plan evaluation tool visit www.safehavensinternational.org.

Update the Plan Regularly, Distribute it Properly, and Keep Records

All plan components should be re-evaluated and updated as appropriate at least once each year. A single point of contact should be designated, and no one should be allowed to modify the plan without that person’s final approval. Employees should sign a distribution sheet when they are issued plan components and should be held responsible for familiarity with and security of the plan components.

Plan components should never be stored in plain view. We are aware of four instances where students have stolen plan components left in plain view and used the emergency charts to plan an attack on the school. Fortunately, all four of these attacks were successfully averted.


Developing viable 3D crisis plans takes effort, focus, thoughtfulness, and meaningful collaboration. Institutions of higher learning have legal and moral obligations to develop and maintain viable safety plans. Our experience has shown that when educational organizations step up to the plate to develop quality, three-dimensional plans, the primary mission of education is easier because of the reduction of problems, improvement in employee morale, and the ability of educators and students to focus on learning rather than worrying about the level of safety and emergency preparedness on their campus.

Internationally recognized experts Michael Dorn and Chris Dorn have published 20+ books on school safety and have trained thousands of educators and law enforcement officials across the globe. For additional information and free resources visit their Website www.safehavensinternational.org.


The Four-Phase Model

All four plan sections should be distinct and in written form.

Prevention and Mitigation — Outlines the policies, procedures, and practices of the organization to prevent crisis situations from occurring as well as to minimize the negative impact of those situations that cannot be prevented or that occur despite prevention measures.

Preparedness — The most difficult and complex plan section to develop and maintain, this section involves the written emergency procedures and preparedness efforts for the organization.

Response — Involves the incorporation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), incident management systems, and/or incident tracking systems into the overall plan so the preparedness plan can be implemented under stressful conditions.

Recovery — Involves two parts: 1) the mental health recovery plan to help reduce the emotional suffering of the campus community and to allow resumption of the process of education, and 2) the written business continuity plan to allow the organization to perform its primary mission of education in spite of extensive damage to facilities or critical systems.