Safety & Security

Good Time to Review Plans

One important area of emergency preparedness for any school involves appropriate preparedness for hazardous materials incidents. These events can impact schools in any region of the country, at any time and, in many instances, without warning. Accidental internal hazardous materials can occur when cleaning solutions or chemicals used by facilities personal are accidentally spilled or when chemistry lab accidents occur. School personnel and students can also face danger when external hazardous materials incidents occur in proximity to one or more schools. Schools should be prepared to rapidly determine the need for, and be capable of: conducting a reverse evacuation; sheltering in place for hazardous materials; implementing an emergency evacuation; evacuation to a distant location; or in some cases, being able to implement two or even all four protocols over the course of one to several hours.

Accidental external contamination can result from a variety of situations such as those involving agricultural, commercial trucking, rail, port and manufacturing incidents. The very real risks of terrorism involving chemicals or radiological incidents must also be considered due to warnings of increased risk of chemical attack by U.S. Government intelligence officials should be taken seriously. Hazardous materials incident preparedness measures should be a priority for schools.

Unfortunately, our analysts have noted a significant drop in school districts that have written plans for hazardous materials incidents as well as a drop in the number of schools that conduct at least one hazardous materials incident drill a year. Based on our observations from more than 5,000 school safety, security, climate, culture, and emergency preparedness assessments, conducted prior to the Sandy Hook attack, in contrast with the more than 1,000 assessments we have completed in 38 states since the attack, our analysts have noted a very clear pattern. The majority of public and non-public schools we have assessed lack adequate written protocols for sheltering for hazardous materials, drills to practice these important protocols, and in many cases, both.

We have also noted a potentially deadly tendency for some schools to combine severe weather, earthquake and hazardous materials incident sheltering into a single sheltering protocol to simplify their plans. As the proper action steps for sheltering are significantly different in each of these potentially deadly types of incidents, this approach could easily result in a mass casualty event and an indefensible position during litigation. For example, while it is often safer to move staff and students into a basement or lower-level floor when sheltering for a tornado, doing so for an external hazardous materials incident is extremely dangerous because many chemicals sink to the lowest level in a building. Much as chemical weapons were effective in killing troops hiding in their trenches during World War I, sheltering students in lower floors of a school could prove to be catastrophic. Similarly, we sometimes still see school crisis plans where biological and chemical incidents are combined in one protocol, though proper actions steps are different for these two types of situations. In some cases, we see badly dated plans that combine radiological incident procedures with biological and chemical incident action steps. This is also an extremely dangerous practice. As terrorist attacks involving weapons comprised of any of these three hazards can occur in any region of the country, every school should have separate and thoughtfully developed protocols for each of them.

Another important aspect of hazardous materials sheltering protocols involves the speed and accuracy of communications. There are a number of emergency communications approaches and now technology solutions that can help schools implement hazardous materials incident evacuation or sheltering faster and more effectively. However, this often involves setting up the system to provide appropriate warnings. We often find that clients that have purchased these high-tech warning systems have focused on lockdown and in some regions, severe weather sheltering but have not set up their communications systems to provide fast warning for hazardous materials sheltering or evacuation. We also find this to be true for schools utilizing portable phone warning applications. In most cases, the technology solution is capable of addressing this threat, but the client school organization does not recognize the need to include hazardous materials incidents in the array of warning options.

Now is an excellent time to review school emergency plans to verify that the procedures for hazardous materials incidents are appropriate.

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

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