Disaster Preparedness

No one expects the worst. It would be paralyzing to worry constantly about shootings, epidemics and natural disasters. Still, experiences like Columbine remind us that the worst can happen in any school at any time.

Experience also teaches that an emergency response plan can save lives if disaster comes.

Do your district’s schools have plans? Do they drill the plans and revise them regularly?

To be sure, emergency response planning takes time and resources that can be difficult to marshal today, especially when you know that nothing bad is likely to happen tomorrow. That may be the biggest barrier to effective emergency-response planning: it’s easy to put it off.

Your police and fire departments can help. They will share their emergency-response planning expertise and help you drill the plans you make.

Before calling the experts, though, familiarize yourself with planning basics. The U.S. Department of Education offers excellent materials at www.ed.gov/emergencyplan. Download a copy of Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities.

Another useful publication is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard 1600: Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs. The most recent version came out in 2010. Download a free copy at www.nfpa.org. Click the button for “codes & standards.” On that page, another button will take you to a list of standards. Scroll down to 1600.

“Both cover the five basic steps of emergency response planning,” says Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, Inc., a Lemont, Ill.-based security consultancy that specializes in K-12 schools. “The steps include risk assessment, prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.”

Risk Assessment
A risk assessment identifies problems that should receive special planning attention. For instance, a school near a highway will have to address chemical spills in its emergency plan, while a school located in a suburban neighborhood will have fewer such concerns.

Assessments consider local crime rates? What crimes do the police look for around your school?

Are you near a major city and a potential terrorism target?

Unfortunately, every school must worry about a person with a gun. Since Columbine, the threat of violence initiated by someone in the school’s community has been ever present.

The police and fire departments or a paid security consultant can help with the risk assessment. The goal is to illuminate the hazards for emergency response planners to address.

That said, give some thought to all of the potential hazards. Practical Information on Crisis Planning lists:
  • bomb threats;
  • bus crashes;
  • deaths — accidental, natural, suicide and homicide;
  • fires;
  • hazardous material spills;
  • medical emergencies;
  • natural disasters;
  • outbreaks of disease;
  • shootings; and
  • terrorism.

Prevention and Mitigation
After defining risks, an emergency response plan aims to prevent problems and to mitigate bad effects should the preventive measures fail.

Prevention begins with a facility review. Are the buildings on campus safe? Is maintenance up-to-date? Are the fire alarm and mass notification systems working?

Emergency planners recommend regular safety audits of the grounds including buildings, parking lots, athletic facilities, outside structures and fences.

To prevent violence, many schools are establishing programs to identify and counsel students, faculty or staff who may become psychologically troubled.

Visitor management programs can prevent unwelcome outsiders from getting into the building and committing crimes.

Prevention, of course, isn’t always successful. Mitigation involves finding out as soon as possible that prevention has failed and taking steps to minimize the ill effects.

A visitor management system that requires students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear badges, for instance, makes it possible to identify unauthorized visitors — they won’t have badges — and take appropriate action. For students, that would mean informing a teacher, administrator or employee. Teachers, administrators and employees should receive training to approach someone one without a badge, question the individual and escort him or her to the visitor badging center where a security officer can take over.

Where prevention fails, mitigation can succeed.

Now it’s time to prepare to respond to an emergency.

Officials recommend that schools adopt a command structure called the National Incident Management System or NIMS (see School Planning & Management, February 2011), which outlines a command structure employed by emergency responders nationwide. If you adopt NIMS, your command structure will plug neatly into the police and fire systems.

Roles within the command structure include incident commander, security officers, medical staff, maintenance technicians and media spokesperson.

You’ll also need people to help emergency responders with directions, finding equipment and supplies and ensuring that they can work quickly and efficiently.

The team will need a command center equipped with communications equipment, video monitors, access control computers and other equipment schools use to monitor events in the building and on the grounds.

Each team member will have preparedness tasks. Maintenance people, for instance, can create maps with information about the facility that first responders can use. Where is the cafeteria? How many entrances are there? Where are the medical supplies? How do you shut off the water, gas and electricity?

Security staff can develop systems to account for students, faculty and staff. In a lockdown, how will you know that everyone who came to school today is inside the school now? In an evacuation, how will you account for everyone? Did people in wheelchairs get out of the building? Did an ailing student fall asleep in the nurse’s office?

In an event requiring evacuation, where will you take people? Preparedness includes making arrangements with facility managers at other locations to take care of students. You probably can’t take 800 students to the same place, so you may have to have several potential locations as well as backup locations — what if your first choice is inaccessible because of a traffic jam?

To add to the complexity of an evacuation, it is also necessary to plan to re-unite students and families. “You can’t allow parents to drop by and pick up students,” says Randy Braverman, a senior consultant with RETA Security. “It would be too easy for a disgruntled former spouse or a predator to take a child. You have to develop a system that ensures that authorized people pick up students.

Still another location must be set up — away from students — where your spokesperson can communicate with the command center to keep up with developments and relay accurate and appropriate information to the media.

As you do this work, you will get to know your police and fire first-responder partners. Some districts formalize these relationships with memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that outline the school’s responsibilities and those of the first responders.

Finally, preparedness includes practicing the plan.

Tabletop drills enable the crisis team to test preparedness in a short session that promotes cooperation among the team.

Comprehensive real-world drills are important too. Often conducted with police and fire departments on the scene, a real world drill might involve a real evacuation or lockdown.

The purpose of tabletop and real-world drills is to identify weaknesses and to improve preparedness.

“You have to test the plan,” says John Stofa, northeast regional manager with Gamewell-FCI by Honeywell in Northford, Ct., a manufacturer of life safety technologies from fire alarms to mass notification technologies. “Plans that seem solid often fall apart when tested. But that’s good. When you know the weaknesses, you can fix them.”

Stofa recommends testing plans under stress. “Emergencies aren’t easy to manage,” he says. “What if there is a fire during a power outage? How will you tell people to evacuate if the fire alarm and public address systems don’t work? Test your response plan under stress.”

Response and Recovery
Emergencies cause people to panic and make mistakes. Then, too, things just go wrong — your maintenance tech is stuck in traffic and no one else knows how to turn off the gas that caused an explosion.

Practical Information on Crisis Planning recommends that the incident commander expect surprises, while moving quickly to select a response that fits the problem and giving the orders that set people to work.

This is where the planning, drilling and revising pay off. You and your team know how to manage the surprises, bad luck and problems that will arise. You’ll have plenty of help from the police and firefighters, whom you have met and drilled with.

And once you’ve made it through, you can turn to recovery. Practical Information on Crisis Planning advises this general approach to recovery work: “Focus on students and the physical plant, and take as much time as needed for recovery. School staff can be trained to deal with the emotional impact of the crisis, as well as to initially assess the emotional needs of students, staff and responders.”

Recovery isn’t easy, either, but at least the emergency is over, and the goal is no longer survival. It is to return to normal.