Natural disasters happen in many ways and places: a hurricane in Florida, a flood in Missouri, a tornado in Oklahoma, a wildfire in Colorado, an earthquake in California.
Then there are the manmade disasters, such as chemical spills, traffic accidents or a shooter on campus.
Although they may differ in cause, they share one thing in common: each can create tremendous property damage, personal injury and loss of life. And each can, and often does, affect the operation of a school, college or university.
As we enter a new school year, it's time to dust off old emergency plans or create one if none existed before. Administrators cannot mitigate all damages from natural disasters and crises, but with a well-written and practiced emergency plan, it is possible to limit damages, injuries and deaths. It will take time and effort from many people to create the plan, and with good fortune it will never need to be used. But should it ever be needed, the effort will have been worth the wise investment.
A good start
A successful emergency plan, whether new or updated, requires the participation of all segments of a campus: police or security, information technology, maintenance, human resources, faculty, parents and students. Begin the process by creating a task force. During the first meeting, select leaders, delineate roles and assign tasks. Obtain complete contact information, such as office, home and mobile phone numbers, and e-mail addresses for each member of the task force. Be sure to involve administrators, other decisionmakers, local law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics (first responders). They are an integral part of an effective emergency plan.
In addition, provide first responders with contact numbers for all task force members, including an updated list of how many people are on a campus, the likely locations of any disabled persons that might need extra assistance, and blueprints and maps of the campus (if available).
With the task force in place, begin a risk assessment to try to anticipate any emergencies that might occur on campus. Administrators should work closely with campus police officers, security staff, and local law-enforcement and fire professionals. These professionals likely have been through many of the emergencies you are preparing for, and their expertise will be valuable. Walk around the campus and look for possible vulnerabilities, making note of any animals or toxic materials on campus. Also consider the surrounding community, because what happens there may affect a campus.
As the plan progresses, encourage task force members to take responsibility for their part of the plan. For example, they may lock or unlock doors, stop or redirect traffic, power down vital equipment or lead evacuations.
With a team in place, roles defined and a risk assessment completed, draft the plan in writing and conduct practice drills. After practicing the plan, carefully evaluate it to see what worked and what did not. Make adjustments where necessary, and then conduct more drills. Once the plan is set, create a final document and distribute it to every campus employee. And then practice it again. This should be a living document that can change as needs and circumstances change.
Practice the plan at least twice a year to ensure that all those on campus — especially new employees — know their role and are comfortable executing it.
If a campus needs to be evacuated, administrators should find a place that can accommodate evacuees, such as a nearby shopping mall, church or park. And have a backup ready if weather conditions make an outdoor site dangerous. Transportation is an important part of this process.
Talk it out
School officials need to maintain communications with people during an emergency. Faculty, staff, students, parents and the media need up-to-date information. In an emergency, widely disseminated, current information can be a lifesaver.
Mass-notification systems can address this need. Web-based solutions are available that can notify thousands of people within seconds, giving them vital information and instructions during a crisis. This information can be sent to a person's home or mobile telephone, e-mail address, digital pager, fax machine and wireless PDA device. Each user can choose a preferred communications device. This solution also can be used for non-emergency communications, such as a reminder to parents of a scheduled teacher conference or to remind students of changes in their daily schedules.
These solutions require no software or system installation; they accept message input from an Internet-connected computer or any telephone. A designated staff member can type in a message that will be turned into a computer-generated voice or text message, or a user may request to record a message in his or her own voice. Should a computer not be available during an emergency, a staff member can call a toll-free number to reach a live representative who will compose and send the message.
The receipt of every message is verified and recorded automatically; busy signals or unanswered messages result in repeated contact attempts until the message is received. Messages can be delivered in 10 languages.
In addition, new outdoor emergency-communication systems are available that use intelligible voice technology to provide warnings and real-time information to people in dangerous areas. These systems, which can be pole-mounted or placed on a portable platform, use specialized speaker technology that can be heard clearly up to one-quarter mile away, broadcasting messages to thousands of people in seconds.
These systems help schools quickly reach large numbers of faculty, staff and students with vital information.
Make it clear in your plan who has the authority to issue emergency messages. Have a multi-level chain of command so that if the first designated person is unavailable, it is clear who assumes that responsibility without delay. Seconds count in an emergency.
The main ingredients to an emergency plan are prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Minimizing injury and property damage is all about meticulous planning — and a lot of practice. Find roles in the plan for as many people as possible; keep in close contact with first responders; and take advantage of available technology. No plan can guarantee perfect results, but having no plan at all increases the chances of a disastrous outcome.
Fiel is the public-safety adviser for ADT Security Services, Alexandria, Va. For six years, he was executive director of school security of Washington, D.C., Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected].