Do They Know What to Do at the Top?

Effective resolution of major crisis events is greatly facilitated if all of a school or school district’s personnel know what to do in an emergency. One of the best ways for all personnel to know what to do in a crisis is to have an emergency operations plan that is appropriately designed by role-specific, yet integrated, plan components.

For example, a school principal, school bus driver, custodian and a teacher do not perform the same action steps in a crisis, yet their actions should be mutually supportive. This means they cannot respond as effectively if they are attempting to use the same plan component. Once integrated plan components have been developed for major categories of employees, the employees should be trained in the proper use of those plan components via live training, custom training videos and/or robust Web courses. To be effective, this training should include training in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to prepare school employees to work effectively as a team under chaotic and stressful conditions.

After this solid framework has been constructed, employees should participate in a progressive exercise program to test plans and to allow personnel to practice using their plan components. This step is also crucial to help prepare people to function effectively under the stress of an actual event.

This description of the core components of an integrated approach to school emergency preparedness obviously does not cover every aspect of preparedness planning, but it does cover the most important ones. We have seen the failure of some pretty robust campus emergency plans that included high-tech software programs, virtual campus tours, extensive use of full-scale exercises and other viable concepts when an integrated approach to planning was not also implemented.

One thought raised by this approach to improved emergency planning involves top-level personnel for the institution. The more progressive school districts have provided training on emergency preparedness, decision making under stress and NIMS for their superintendents and cabinet-level personnel. They have also afforded them an opportunity to practice for crisis situations by their participation in a progressive exercise program. Our hat is off to those schools and districts that have made such strides, and we encourage more to join their ranks.

One way to enhance these types of efforts is to utilize an approach that is becoming increasingly popular among K-12 school districts — role-specific strategic level emergency preparedness plans for their superintendents and cabinet officials. As one example, two years ago, the Rockdale County (Ga.) Public School System applied for and was awarded an emergency management grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Though the district had developed good plans many years before, and had been highlighted extensively in the national media for their superb handling of a major crisis event more than a decade before, they decided it was time to completely revamp their emergency preparedness system. Under the grant, the district has been working tirelessly with state and local emergency response agency personnel and a large district planning team to provide training, custom training videos, a custom-developed “train the trainer” program and security, safety and emergency preparedness assessments for all schools and support facilities annually; a progressive drill and exercise program; and completely revamped, written emergency preparedness plans for seven different groupings of school employees.

One of the new plan components being developed in the district is what they refer to as a Top Level Plan. This plan component provides detailed sets of action steps to guide the response of the school superintendent and his cabinet. Like all building administrators in the district, the superintendent and his entire cabinet have received advanced-level training on emergency preparedness and have participated in a series of video tabletop exercises to hone crisis decision-making skills, and will continue to participate in tabletop exercises, functional exercises and full-scale exercises.

The very idea of an educational organization’s chief executive officer and indispensible administrative staff being forced to “wing it” during a crisis, while the personnel they supervise are afforded written plan components, can seem starkly out of place when we step back and look at it. For those public, private and independent school systems that do not have this type of plan component in place, an excellent opportunity may exist to significantly improve the ability of high-level school leaders to function extremely well in a major crisis event.

Michael S. Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International Inc., a nonprofit school safety center. He keynotes conferences internationally and has published more than two dozen books on school safety. 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