Disaster - No Exaggeration!

The English language can easily be manipulated for the purpose of sensationalizing. For example, what could be called a “nice day” can soon become a “totally awesome day.” Conversely, one person’s “difficult experience” can be described by another as an “epic failure.” Because we are so accustomed to hearing people engage in the art of exaggeration, we often don’t worry when someone relates a minor disappointment and refers to it as a “complete and total disaster.” Where school disaster planning and preparedness is concerned, however, we cannot afford to take the topic lightly. Unfortunately, many school districts do just that. Let’s discuss some of the reasons why this may occur, propose some remedies and provide some resources.

A common mistake many districts make is to assume that the existing, many times boiler-plate, crisis management plan effectively addresses disasters. In fact, that assumption can be compared to the belief that a first aid kit can handle a mass triage situation. Band-aids and aspirin might help with some issues, but are hardly sufficient to address all of the supplies that a significant crisis might require. The typical crisis plan’s evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures, as important as they are, may not be enough to deal with a massive tornado that lays waste to both school and community facilities and knocks out power for an extended period of time.

Several years ago, the United States Department of Education posted a document entitled, “Practical Information on Crisis Planning”. Their four phases of planning consist of the following.

  • Mitigation and Prevention: This area involves conducting related assessments and reviewing all measures in place to prevent violence, fires, criminal acts, etc. It also involves measures that are designed to address emergencies that cannot be prevented (i.e. severe weather) or crises that occur in spite of our prevention efforts.
  • Preparedness: This area addresses staff and stakeholder responses during a crisis or disaster. It also involves the need for internal communications and mass notification systems. Planning efforts include the acquisition and storage of emergency supplies, as well as the training and drilling of staff members and students. In addition to required fire drills, many states now mandate practicing for emergencies such as lockdowns, bus evacuations and situations that require sheltering in place.
  • Response: This area documents specific actions that should be taken during a crisis. Functional protocols such as evacuation, reverse evacuation, lockdown and shelter-in-place are detailed here. In addition, the response plan outlines the Incident Command System (ICS) structure according to the National Incident Management System (NIMS). More school-specific information about ICS can be found at www.training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/is/is100sca.asp.
  • Recovery: This area addresses the need for school/community healing and restoration. It outlines important functions including emotional well-being and the commemoration of events. Recovery also addresses business continuity plans that detail how and when operations will be resumed.

Funding sources such as the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant program seek to help school districts with the planning, development and implementation process described above. REMS is also increasingly placing importance on the inclusion of private schools in the community, addressing special needs stakeholders (predominantly students and staff) and collaborating with local emergency responders.

Effective disaster planning and recovery necessitates that districts develop mutual aid agreements with entities such as the American Red Cross, local government and area businesses. Mutual aid agreements allow two or more organizations to supplement their plans by relying on the resources of the other organization. These reciprocal agreements can detail everything from emergency use of facilities to access to critical supplies. For example, if a pandemic flu strikes a community and schools are closed, how will the education of students continue? Your district may have an agreement with the local cable television company to broadcast homework assignments and/or utilize video broadcasting to teach. Another option may involve an agreement with a local business that has Web-based capabilities to stream pre-recorded lessons plans on the school website. The East Aurora School District in Illinois has an agreement with their local library. The library now stores teachers’ lesson plans on site. This school district also forged an agreement with the local newspaper that provides for the printing of lesson plans and homework, if necessary.

A second level of mutual aid agreements can be made with neighboring school districts. These reciprocal agreements often address the sharing of manpower. For example, if district A is victimized with a severe flood, then District B would send some custodians to assist in the clean up and/or operations of District A. Going a step farther, District A might need to temporarily send students and staff to District B’s facilities because an emergency has rendered District A’s facilities inoperable. Of course, all of these agreements should be developed and documented as soon as possible so that all parties involved know who to contact, what resources will be supplied and what other kinds of assistance might be available.

Good disaster recovery plans must be made collaboratively and should include input from entities such as mental health officials, emergency management personnel, 911 responders and public health representatives. Routine training and broad-based awareness initiatives must be undertaken to ensure that all stakeholders are willing and able to implement the plan. Sometimes these entities will even take the lead in recovery planning. For example, Mental Health America in Illinois (MHAI) is a state agency that has adopted a far-reaching model of recovery. MHAI utilizes the methodology of the National Organization for Victim’s Assistance (NOVA) and has trained School Crisis Assistance Team volunteers across the state to assist school districts with the initial stages of recovery. It is important to remember that recovery plan awareness campaigns should also extend to parents and other key school stakeholders.

Finally, disaster preparedness plans should be updated and tested at least annually. Beginning with simple tabletop exercises and building toward full-scale community exercises, practice is the best way to determine how effective our procedures will be in an actual emergency.

In a very real sense, disaster planning and preparedness is a BIG DEAL. After listening to me embellish stories as an adolescent, my dad would like to kid, “I told you a million times not to exaggerate!” Where school disaster planning and preparedness is concerned, however, we cannot afford to take the topic lightly. So, the next time you raise this important topic and meet with the pervasive Mayberry mentality of “it won’t happen here,” stand your ground and forge ahead. Gain support by gathering school and community stakeholders, scheduling and facilitating regular meetings, and documenting initiatives and agreements every step of the way. Your plans will begin to take shape and everyone involved will benefit. And, I want to personally thank you for your commitment to making our schools and communities safer.

Paul Timm is a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), president of RETA Security, Inc. and a nationally acclaimed expert in school security. He can be reached at paul@retasecurity.com.