Effective Responses Come From Great Preparation

If you face a crisis next year, your efforts today will determine how your response unfolds during that crisis. As an example, how well would most schools handle a two-week media frenzy focused on the tragic discovery of a little girl’s body 100 ft. from an elementary school? That is exactly the challenge posed by factors beyond a district’s control in late 2008, when the body of little Caylee Marie Anthony was dumped near the campus of an elementary school in Orange County, Fla. Fortunately, the Orange County Public School System and their community partners began planning and practicing intensively for a wide range of crisis situations back in 1992. Their efforts since that time created the conditions where this difficult situation could be handled properly. This is particularly true in two areas that are often not fully addressed in school crisis planning — integration of the National Incident Management System (the NIMS), and a robust and carefully developed recovery capability. Orange County Public Schools have worked tirelessly to be up to speed in both areas, as demonstrated by their handling of the Anthony incident.

In a conference call, Keith Baber from the district SAFE team (Student Assistance and Family Empowerment), Katherine Marsh the senior manager of Media Relations for the district, Mike Ganio, Joe Mastandrea and Chief Rick Harris from the District Security Office, explained how this chain of events led up to a successful resolution in this case. While the public was exposed to 24-hour intensive media coverage of the tragedy, most people don’t realize how the response to the incident by school officials was a textbook example of how well such a tragic event can be handled by a thoughtfully prepared team approach.

How did a school system and its community partners handle a massive onslaught of reporters, a crime scene 100 ft. from the school’s bus loop and the mental health needs of elementary students, staff and parents affected by such a shocking event? The answer lies in a proactive, pragmatic approach to incidents. All hazard campus crisis planning is supported by an intensive commitment at the district level, in each school, and by a very supportive public safety and emergency management community.

The district developed a comprehensive emergency management plan back in 1992, and the plan was significantly updated when Chief Harris was appointed in 2000. Over the years, the district has continually upgraded and improved the plans with a collaborative commitment by the numerous law enforcement, fire service and emergency management agencies. Mike Ganio also points out that the district is deeply integrated into the Orange County emergency plan. The district provides numerous sheltering sites for evacuees when hurricanes threaten Florida communities. He maintains that this has proven to be a critical link to the district’s high degree of preparedness.

In addition, the NIMS has been incorporated by a school board resolution as recommended by the United States Department of Education. All administrators have completed FEMA’s IS 100 and 700 online courses, more than 700 school bus drivers have completed IS 100, 200 and 700, and have received classroom training in the NIMS. School Emergency Response Teams, or SERTs, have also trained in the NIMS and completed tabletop exercises to allow them to practice its utilization. Perhaps most impressively, the district participates in three-day unified command courses in partnership with the Orange County Fire Rescue Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Representatives from each agency participate in these courses, which are held two or three times each month. The courses culminate in a functional exercise on the third day. School SERT members participate in the third day of each session to afford them not only advanced training on the NIMS, but an opportunity to practice using the incident command system and unified command with their public safety partners.

To address mental health recovery concerns, the district’s SAFE team is based on the Student Assistance Program model. Mr. Baber emphasized that the team began working immediately with the affected school and continues to provide support today. The SAFE team uses its extensive connections not only with the schools, but also with the community to provide support to classrooms and individuals affected by traumatic events.

The exemplary performance by the SAFE and SERT teams, along with their community partners, in responding to this sad situation is yet another example to prove that schools should and can prepare to handle a wide range of difficult situations. Making it a priority to prepare for crisis situations is the key to success when real events occur.