Ready, Set, Emergency!

“Given the number of students under school roofs,” says Larry Borland, chief of Security and Transportation Services for Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Academy School District 20, “an emergency is going to happen, and we need to be prepared for it.” That’s excellent advice. However, Borland continues, “Emergency preparedness is a big apple, and many administrators are not sure where to take the first bite.” Fortunately, there is a lot of help available for both creating an emergency management plan and then enhancing your level of preparedness.

Creating an Emergency Management Plan
Post-9/11, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools began a granted training program based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) four-phase emergency management plan: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. “A lot of districts, even those not receiving a grant, embraced the model because it makes a lot of sense,” says Borland. “It helps define some of the areas that need to be worked, and this is especially helpful for education professionals whose forte is not fire fighting, law enforcement or emergency management.”

Borland also notes that a lot of states mandated that their schools use the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that provides a common standard, and is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across a full spectrum of incidents, to improve coordination and cooperation between public and private entities.

The four-phase emergency management plan, coupled with NIMS, is a good place to begin building an emergency management plan. And you don’t have to do it alone — there are plenty of resources to aid you on your journey. Here are three.

1. Office of Safe and Healthy Students: In September 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) and its programs were moved into a new Office of Safe and Healthy Students (OSHS) within the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). The move provides new opportunities for both offices to work together to improve school environments and support children’s learning, health and well-being. A range of programs and initiatives can be found on the Office’s website.

Two specific programs that come out of the OSHS office are the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center and the REMS grant program.

2. REMS TA Center: The REMS TA Center was established by the OSHS in 2004 to support schools in emergency management, including the development and implementation of comprehensive emergency and crisis response plans. “The TA Center is phenomenal and available to all schools,” says William Modzeleski, OSHS’s former associate assistant deputy secretary and current consultant. “It offers webinars, online courses, case studies, publications and references to other materials. It’s wonderful in that it’s free and available at the click of a mouse.”

Bob Spears, director of Emergency Services for Los Angeles Unified School District, who uses the TA Center’s resources for his district’s needs, appreciates that information. “The TA Center has excellent resources so that each district is not inventing safety on its own. That really serves to advance the implementation of good emergency planning because there is a lot of poor-quality information available elsewhere.”

3. REMS Grants: According to the REMS website, the REMS grant program provides schools funds to establish an emergency management process that focuses on reviewing and strengthening emergency management plans, within the framework of the four phases of emergency management. It also provides resources for training staff on emergency management procedures and requires that school districts develop comprehensive all-hazards emergency management plans in collaboration with community partners.

“I applied for a REMS grant in 2007, and wasn’t chosen,” recalls Stephen C. Satterly, Jr., director of School Safety for Community School Corporation, Southern Hancock County, Ind. “I reviewed their comments and realized that, yes, my application was lacking. In 2009, I developed another request that was much more focused and was fortunate enough to receive the grant.” 
He has used the grant money to do a security site assessment of each building in the district and for training.

Enhancing Your Level of Readiness
Once your emergency plans are in place, there’s room for improvement, and wise administrators are always looking for ways to enhance their level of readiness. The reason? The students. “We serve a dependent population,” says Spears. “If a school needs to be evacuated, we can’t just tell students to leave; we have to take them out. Because we act in loco parentis, we have to be prepared to keep them safe and secure.” Here are five ways to enhance your plans.

1. Get buy-in: Satterly notes the value of buy-in: “The worst thing is feeling that you’re the only person in the district worrying about emergency preparedness. I’ve had principals joke that, if an emergency happens, they’re calling me. That’s horrible thinking. I want all our staff members to know that they can start a fire drill or enact a lockdown. I want them to act first and then communicate what they’ve done and why. This is a new idea in education, especially for teachers, who think, ‘I’d rather have someone else take responsibility for that.’”

2. Standardize: “There is just one of me, and 1,100 schools and 80,000 employees,” Spears says. “So we are putting safety training online. We have 15 classes online now, with plans for 40 altogether.” He’s been able to accomplish this with the assistance of a REMS grant, one of three he’s been awarded since 2003.

3. Exercise the plan: “Administrators have to remember to exercise their plan, as no plan will work if it sits on a shelf,” says Modzeleski. To that end, a lot of districts conduct twice yearly drills; others do tabletop drills.

Ongoing training counts, too. Spears observes that, unfortunately, experience is a huge motivation for employees taking specific courses. “When bad things happen, and they do because this is Los Angeles, employees want to take those classes. For example, we recently had a couple of lockdowns. Afterward, principals contacted me wanting their staff members to take the lockdown class.”

4. Involve the community: “More eyes are better,” says Satterly. “Everyone sees something different, depending on their position and perspective, and that allows you to keep making improvements.”

Modzeleski agrees, noting that community partners are invaluable. Who your partners are depends on your location, but it can involve local law enforcement; local fire and rescue; local government; and public safety, public health and mental health agencies. It may even include nearby churches. “If you need to vacate a school,” he explains, “there has to be a place to vacate to.”

5. Update the plan: Staff are replaced by new hires. Staff change positions within the district. Phone numbers change. Policies change. Efficiencies are found. All these little details affect the plan. “At least once a year, update the plan, making sure it is known to everybody and agreed to by everybody,” Modzeleski encourages.

Creating and then improving emergency management plans is a challenge: “Schools have a lot asked of them,” says Modzeleski. “So the fact that they have emergency plans at all means we’re doing well.” And the effort is worth the payoff: “Our employees’ incentive in participating in training is that they’re becoming confident in knowing how to keep students safe and secure in an emergency,” says Spears.