Security Codes and Specifications

Educators in diversity from coast to coast prepare and reevaluate emergency evacuation plans for students with disabilities and special needs. It’s important work that is usually unnoticed, unless there’s a controversy or unfortunate incident.

Federal law requires that schools prepare an individual educational program (IEP) for each student with a disability, providing related services known to include safety in an emergency. Codes stipulate warning systems and require regular drills for all students, and schools around the nation reevaluate their plans regularly. Yet, given the many variables and threats today, additional ideas and insights can be helpful.

Specialists in the field recently shared some insights about ways to help fortify emergency evacuation plans for youngsters who have disabilities and special needs. Among the themes: cooperation, change and vigilance.

A good plan is “a live plan,” says Robert J. Davidson, a code consultant and a former fire marshal. By “live,” he’s referring to the need to account for staff changes, new students, building renovations and differing room uses. Furthermore, different grade levels call for different arrangements for building sweeps and head counts, he adds. All such factors call for vigilance in an emergency plan in any given school.

Then, there’s cooperation. As Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist for the National Fire Protection Association, says, “There’s a phrase that’s used in the disability community—‘nothing about us without us.’ In other words, the individual who you are planning to evacuate has to be included in the initial planning. After all, nobody knows better what they need.”

Reaching out across districts, schools and their communities is also part of the equation, and Luke McCann, deputy superintendent of Schools for Marin County, Calif., spoke to that aspect. The county, which has 19 separate districts and 56 schools, provides guidelines for those schools to create their own plans, he explains, and one size does not fit all.

It’s a cooperative process. McCann points out that students and parents, district administrators, facilities managers, teachers, para-professionals, fire, police and EMS professionals all bring important points of view and skill sets to bear on the preparation of evacuation plans that meet the needs of individuals.

Things change, whether it’s the student population, requirements or technologies. Keeping on top of that and updating a plan accordingly are other keys. Along that line, McCann is a member of a county council that meets several times a year to discuss new information, recommendations and best practices on preparedness along a broad range. Council members develop instructions accordingly, which are localized in cooperation with fire, police and EMS personnel and are added to the evacuation plan.

That’s worked out well, in McCann’s view, as has being as transparent as possible and staying in frequent contact with all stakeholders. Marin County, he says, has made it a point to forge a good working relationship with advocacy groups. It’s important to see such groups as an asset, not an adversary, and to be open to cooperation and input. Indeed, McCann believes that the broader “community is a partner” as well, and that’s only to the good. “After all, we can’t do it alone,” he says. Others echoed that theme.

John (Dennis) Gentzel, fire protection engineer for the United States Fire Administration, and a former state fire marshal and chief fire protection engineer for Maryland, has worked on fire and life safety systems and programs for deaf students and blind students. In his experience, it’s important to work with teachers on a number of different aspects and approaches, ranging from evacuation plans to educational handouts to another aspect crucial to individuals with disabilities: the specifications of strobe and other alarms.

Also, Gentzel points out that accounting for temporary disabilities should also be an active part of the equation. Sports injuries, for example, are such a disability, and they are probably becoming more frequent and affecting younger kids. Gentzel urges districts to reach out and talk with parents in such instances and, on another tack, to bear in mind that faculty and staff can also experience temporary disabilities of their own.

Cognitive issues also need to be identified. Fraser points out a particular challenge along this line: that people may be hesitant to self identify, and he points to stigmas about such disabilities as the reason why. That’s a societal and cultural issue — and can be a high hurdle to clear, but “perceptions need to be changed,” he says.

Thus, he suggests that districts be proactive instead of expecting everyone with a potential disability to come forward. Fraser suggests handouts to all explaining: “If you have a disability, here are the accommodations that we can provide for you. If you need any of these, tell us and we will provide them.” Putting such information together can also be an important step in the process; that is, thinking through “all disabilities and how to respond.”

Practice is another crucial step. Drawing up a plan and not practicing it “would be like saying to a 16-year-old, ‘Here’s the driver’s manual and here’s your license,” Fraser says. “It has to be automatic. Unless you’ve ever been in a burning or shaking building, you have no idea of the panic, disorientation and confusion that can happen.”

Districts across the country continue their work. Back in Marin County, for example, employees recently attended a half-day training seminar on active shooter awareness — it’s a sobering reminder of changing threats in today’s world.

It’s also a reminder of something else: the fact, as McCann points out, that “this work never ends. It changes based on need.” He adds, “The dangers out there are real … [and] the most important work educators do is to have a safe environment.” 

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.


About the Author

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.