Maintenance & Operations

Weathering the Storm

In the world of school facility management, it’s not a question of if a disaster will affect your system, it’s a question of when... and how often. The most effective school facility managers are able to recognize potential threats and put plans in place to prevent/mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover from these unfortunate events. In absence of these measures, ultimately, there will be negative impacts on our facilities and on our ability to provide an environment conducive to teaching and learning.

Recognition of the potential for threats is a critical first step. Disasters come in many forms and are specific to one’s geographic region and environment. Whereas, a severe snowstorm would be seen as a potential hazard in Michigan, it would be a very low-risk threat in Florida. A petrochemical plant explosion would be seen as a potential hazard along an industrial corridor in Louisiana, it would be a non-existent threat in an agricultural corridor. A risk assessment analysis focused on your region and environment can serve as a guiding document to understand the challenges your school district may face. A typical standard for assessment centers on probability and impact. School facility managers do not need to tackle this task alone, as most local governments have staff that have already conducted an assessment for their area.

Once the specific risks have been identified, facility managers can begin to develop plans. Plans for each threat should include measures for prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. An example of a disaster plan that was developed by St. Charles Parish Public Schools (SCPPS) in Louisiana is the Hurricane Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Plans (HDPRP). One of the HDPRP key components include department-specific action plans that outline critical tasks to be completed prior to hurricane season, steps to be taken immediately after the disaster, and a recovery response. Due to the high threat of tropical activity in the region, these plans have been put to the test multiple times. An important lesson that can be gleaned from this is that we must not laminate our disaster plans and put them on the shelf to collect dust. Each disaster offers us real-world lessons learned and gives us the opportunity for continuous improvement. The process should be a continual and cyclical one of review, revise, and practice.

Emergency contracts can be an instrumental component of a plan to manage threats. Emergency contracts are put in place to help mitigate the effects of identified threats and come in many different formats. You should consider emergency contracts for restoration services and grounds/building components. Advantages of these emergency contracts include mitigating damages, establishing a reliable labor force, establishing a reliable material and equipment pool, saving valuable time, and insuring that proper procurement procedures are followed for reimbursement purposes from entities such as FEMA. Quick action in an emergency is critical. By establishing pre-disaster emergency contracts, you can move forward with mitigating damages and completing necessary repairs to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

Although establishing relationships and collaborating with local first responders is the final step being addressed in this article, it should not diminish its importance. Human resources are critical to making any plan effective. Most local governments have expert staff in the area of emergency preparedness. School facility mangers need to tap into these resources to help prepare for and carry out established disaster plans. It is imperative that these relationships be fostered prior to any potential threat. There are many was to cultivate this relationship, such as having them participate on school safety assessment teams, sharing of emergency plans, and conducting drills with first responders. Moreover, it behooves school districts and facility managers to request the proverbial “ seat at the table” with local emergency preparedness entities. This arrangement ensures that the school system has the information necessary to make decisions as it pertains to schools and ensures that the school system has a voice in the decisions being made in regards to emergency situations.

It is inevitable that all of us will be faced with disasters of varying frequency and intensity during our tenures. The question is will you be prepared when the next disaster comes? Having emergency plans for threats/disasters in place will ensure that you are better prepared to “weather the storm” and facilitate efforts to protect our capital investment in our facilities and more importantly, our human investment in our staff and students.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management February 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

John P. Rome Jr. is the executive director of Physical Plant Services for St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Luling, La. He is a Louisiana School Facility Managers’ Association board member and past president (2013), National School Plant Management Association (NSPMA) board member and vice president and the 2015 NSPMA National School Plant manager of the Year. He can be reached at [email protected].