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Security Solutions: The Colors of Crisis

Security Solutions: The Colors of Crisis

It is important for each building's crisis team to have numerous opportunities to practice or drill together in advance of emergencies.

It is vitally important for each building's crisis team to have numerous opportunities to practice or drill together in advance of emergencies.

“Mrs. Smith's pink Cadillac is parked out front.” “Mr. Green has left the building.” “All people with Apple computers may leave the building.” What do these statements have in common? Schools have used them as codes to alert staff and students to carry out a specific response to a crisis.

But what if a school's codes are vague and confusing, or if a building has so many codes that staff and students can't keep them all straight?

Most would agree that effective communication is the key to responding properly when a crisis arises. Unfortunately, communication is often where the system breaks down.

Professional emergency responders advise that as much as possible, communication during a crisis should be clear, understandable and simple. Imagine the problems for itinerant staff or substitute teachers if every school in a large district had different codes for different crises.

Realizing that clear speech and understandable instructions are vital, many school organizations have decided to use universal codes, drills and procedures. By using the same language in every building in a multi-facility campus, administrators can be sure that all students and staff will understand and react properly to potential school emergencies.


In Olathe, Kan., District Schools, officials established five universal codes, each using a different color as an identifier. These codes used colors that already were linked to familiar terms.

In vernacular, a code red means there is an imminent danger and protective action is needed. A code red means teachers and their students will assume a protective position in their classrooms. They will stay in this position until more instructions are given. An example of a code red would be someone firing a weapon at a school.

A code yellow is a situation in which students need to stay in their rooms with their teachers. Normal classroom activity continues. Often a code yellow is an incident that happens in the school office area. Students and staff remain in a code yellow until an “all clear” or additional instructions are given.

A code blue has become known universally for an emergency medical condition that requires immediate response. In an educational setting, a code blue is one in which those trained in CPR/first aid will be the first responders until professional emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrive.


Many communities have an EMT response time of five to seven minutes. We all know how long that can seem when a child is hurt and frightened. Having staff trained in CPR/first aid can help a school deal with the situation until emergency personnel arrive.

In Olathe, we strive to have at least three adult staff members per building trained in CPR/first aid. Medical emergencies in schools may occur on the days when the school nurse is out of the building, so it is critical to have others trained in CPR/first aid.

In buildings that have an automated external defibrillator (AED), it's critical to have trained people responding to a cardiac emergency. The American Heart Association notes that for every minute that CPR or AED treatment is not given after the heart stops beating, chances of survival decrease by 10 percent.

All instructions for code blue emergencies should be given clearly. This means announcing or explaining in simple and understandable terms what the problem is, where the victim is and other critical facts.

In Olathe, a code purple is the universal code that alerts the building's crisis team to assemble as soon as possible in a pre-determined place.

A building's crisis team often is composed of five to seven members. The building administrator is most often the purple-team leader. Other typical team members are a counselor, a nurse, school secretary or a custodian.

In a code purple, the team usually is given the facts and is expected to help the team leader decide how to proceed.


Each building's crisis team should practice or drill together frequently. These drills can be as simple as discussing “what if” situations, or as complex as full-scale activities with imaginary victims and response from emergency personnel.

A code white is a special situation in which written instructions or explanations are given, and special action is needed. An example of a code white is where a threat occurs in the neighborhood surrounding a school, and children will be kept at the school until their parents can pick them up.

Three years after establishing these codes, Olathe has woven them into the fabric of the school system. From primary school children to itinerant staff members and everyone in between, all have a clear understanding of each code.

Some guidelines or suggestions to consider when adopting universal codes:

  • Use a small number of codes that everyone can use and remember.
  • Use clear speech when giving directions or locations.
  • Use colors or a mental connector that will be a memory aid to all persons expected to know the significance of code statements.
  • Use and explain codes to all segments of the school community.
  • Post codes and drills in obvious school locations.
  • Invite all staff to have input into choosing the universal codes.
  • Have a plan to cover for all staff members who have response duties during emergencies.
  • Make sure instructions are age-appropriate for younger students.
  • Practice drills when students are away from their normal classrooms, so they know how to respond from other settings.

Know the drill

A fresh look at the whys and hows of drill procedures helps provide a safe school environment for all. Each school has emergency drills that are required by statute or common expectations. Schools always should abide by their state regulations when scheduling practice drills.

The following chart overviews guidelines and purposes of more commonly used drills in educational settings.

Drill Suggested Frequency Comments
Fire As required/monthly Safe evacuation from school building
Earthquake As required Earthquake survival
Severe Weather/Tornado As required Move to a protected place and occupants assume a protective position
Safe School One per semester Building occupants take protective actions from an imminent threat
Bus Evacuation As required Instructions for safe evacuation from a school bus
Shelter in Place One per semester Internal sheltering for an airborne-chemical release
Code Yellow One per semester A drill where students are to remain in the classroom with their instructor and maintain normal classroom activity

Hull is the assistant superintendent of operations for Olathe Unified School District 233, Kan. In Olathe, he is the team leader of the district crisis team. He also is a certified Kansas Emergency Medical Manager in the state of Kansas.

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