Turning School Emergency Plans Inside Out

How would you rate the security program at your school? It's not a trick question. Most schools have made an effort to create a safe school by evaluating risks and creating plans. Statistics say you likely have video, access control and/or a visitor management program. The savviest among you may even conduct drills to evaluate preparedness.

To test your program's effectiveness, consider an example. Suppose a chemical spill such as a chlorine leak at an indoor pool or a mishap in the chemistry lab occurs at school. A glance at your emergency operations plan reveals a detailed plan to evacuate the building. Emergency contacts are listed, there is a plan to evacuate, assigned staff to direct students out of the building and even a task force assigned to verify that the building is empty. You feel good. You are prepared.

Risk With a Twist
There is no minimizing the value of this level of preparedness. Accolades are an order. But consider this twist: the chemical spill is from outside the school. Now what? Don't make the mistake of thinking this sort of thing does not happen. Consider just a few major headlines from years past:
  • "Chemical Spill Causes Evacuation of Three Schools, Parts of Melvindales," Detroit News October 17, 2007
  • "Spill Closes School Parking Lot," The Star Press July 31, 2008
  • "Imperial Oil Spills Chemical Benzene," London Free Press (Ontario) October 7, 2009
The fact that the spill takes place outside the school, a mile down the road at a manufacturing plant, completely changes the scenario as well as the effectiveness of your emergency operations plan.

Suddenly, every emergency vehicle and law enforcement officer in the city is darting past the school. The local news is spreading panic. You turn to the emergency operations plan, but the section on chemical spills provides guidance exclusively in a scenario when the spill has taken place inside the building. It feels like keeping students and staff inside the building and turning off the HVAC system is the prudent measure, but you're not 100 percent certain. You try reaching emergency responders, but to no avail — dispatchers tell you that all local personnel are on-site at the plant dealing with the source of the problem. You're on your own and visions of legal liabilities, angry parents and relentless media are dancing in your head. How would you rate your emergency operations plan now?

Evaluating Your Plan
The point here is not to diminish the work that has been done to secure schools. It is definitely the right thing to do to be prepared for an indoor chemical spill. The point is, your emergency management plan as-is may not factor in some very real dangers and it could be time to reevaluate exactly what your risks are and how your school can best prepare.

Unfortunately, many schools fail to understand the risks and resources brought to the school by the surrounding community, campus and building exteriors. By taking a look outside the school to evaluate security, safety and health risks, schools can do the following.
  • Be aware of and better prepared for potential risks.
  • Be in control of the situation.
  • Prioritize limited security budget dollars.
  • Avoid litigation/bad press.
Consider the following types of risks that can come from outside the school.

Proximity to problems - Certain kinds of infrastructure or activities around the school can present risk. Subways, bus stations and other types of transit may create unwanted traffic near the school. Or a nearby landmark can increase the risk of a terrorist attack. By evaluating a one- or two-mile radius of the area surrounding the school, administrators can uncover potential risks they had not considered before.

Natural influences -
Weather conditions native to the area require preparation. Whether the school is located in the Midwest plains, where tornados are prevalent in spring, or in the hills of California where wildfires blaze each fall, administrators should identify and prepare for the weather events most common to the area. Other environmental risks may be how foliage around the school blocks views or creates a hidden area where kids can gather to engage in unwanted activities.

Safety hazards - Safety issues range from operations such as management of the bus loading and unloading zones, to the care of playground equipment. Safety is often unwittingly compromised by poor maintenance. By evaluating elements such as the condition of outdoor equipment, traffic patterns on campus and other practices, administrators can identify critical safety issues that should be addressed.

Resources - Not all elements surrounding schools have a negative influence. The community may also offer resources that can support the school in case of an emergency. The proximity of emergency response personnel, trauma centers and counseling professionals are just some examples of excellent resources that could help save loss and life in case of a problem. Administrators should be aware of these resources and know how to contact them in case of an emergency.

The point is that a comprehensive outdoor assessment can bring to light risks and resources. While you may not be able to do anything about the fact that there is a chemical plant a mile from the school, you can determine how that plant could impact the school, investigate the risk, and be prepared to act. By turning your emergency plan inside out, it is possible to increase awareness and preparedness.

Jeff Floreno serves as security practice leader for Wren, providers of physical security solutions that create safe learning environments, where he directs new product development efforts and provides security expertise to education customers. He can be reached at jeff.floreno@wrensolutions.com.