Quality Over Speed

There are times where quality is more important than speed. School crisis planning is one of those situations. We have worked with many school districts on their Readiness Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) projects over the past 10 years or so. These grants were awarded by the United States Department of Education, before the program was cut by Congress, to help schools develop all-hazards, four-phase school crisis plans. In our work on these projects, we have noted a tendency for top leadership to push planning teams to meet unrealistic deadlines. There are a variety of reasons for this.

Unfortunately, many school districts and non-public schools have planning concepts that have now been found to be unreliable. Widely varying quality of school safety consultants as well as improved research and assessment in school emergency preparedness combined with forensic evaluation of failed responses has taught us a great deal about how to improve school crisis planning.

Structured interviews with over 500 school employees from 14 school districts using more than 1,700 scripted and dynamic video school crisis simulations allowed for measurement of how well prepared individual staff members were for emergency situations. In particular, this allowed testing of their ability to implement lifesaving emergency protocols such as pulling a fire alarm, evacuating students, sheltering students from tornadoes, calling 911 or ordering a lockdown in the critical first 30 seconds of an event. Scoring has demonstrated that, on average, participating school staff missed about one life-saving action step per scenario. The inability of so many staff to perform such significant, yet simple, action steps under moderate stress levels helps explain the catastrophic plan failure we have seen in too many school crisis situations in the past, including school districts that have completed REMS grants. These findings correlate with what we are seeing in our forensic work for court cases as well.

Naturally, when education leaders learn that they have significant gaps in their organization’s crisis plans, they want them to be corrected immediately. The problem here is that it can often take six to 18 months to do this in a cost-effective and reliable manner. Unless the organization can afford significant assistance from an outside vendor, the planning team will often require more time to properly revise, print, distribute and train staff on new plans. 

School officials have found the following approaches to be helpful in organizing the plan evaluation, revision and implementation process.

1. Establish needs through a formal hazard and vulnerability assessment process.

2. Identify key planning team members.

3. Identify how all school staff will be provided with a written plan component that is appropriate to their role in an emergency, how they will be trained and how they will participate and be evaluated during drills.

4. Develop role-specific integrated plan components so employees have information relevant to what they should be doing during a crisis. A building administrator, school bus driver, food service worker, custodian and teacher do not perform the same action steps in a crisis.

5. Test the plans and have someone with an emergency management background perform an independent plan evaluation to spot gaps that may not be seen by those too close to the plan because they helped develop it and have read it too many times.

6. Print and issue the plan components, document this and provide documented training via live, video or web training (or a combination).

7. Implement the progressive exercise program with an emphasis on building competency and confidence on core emergency protocols like reverse evacuation, lockdown, fire evacuation, shelter in place for hazardous materials, room clear, earthquake and tornado sheltering, etc. A particular emphasis should be on the ability of staff to perform independently under stress when needed.

8. One improved concept that greatly enhances the traditional progressive exercise process involves assessment and staff development using one-on-one evaluation interviews to gauge where the organization is and group staff development sessions to allow ALL employees the opportunity to learn and to practice life-or-death decision-making.

9. Plan continual evaluation, revision and improvement. School officials have found these key concepts to be very helpful in identifying and correcting gaps, which will significantly improve performance in actual school crisis situations. Moving methodically and steadily forward will yield superior quality and reliability and may save human lives. Avoid the common trap of rushing towards quickly developed but inferior plans by using a logical process with realistic timelines. 

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 www.safehavensinternational.org.


About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.