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How to Prepare Your School for an Emergency

By Daniel Clark | Last updated: February 1, 2021
Key Takeaways

Planning, preparation, and practice all ensure that schools are ready for emergency scenarios.

Caption: Empty school hallway Source: stacey newman / iStock

Schools have always had a tremendous responsibility to prepare for emergencies and keep students safe. Each generation’s approaches reflect the sociopolitical circumstances of the time – do you duck and cover, or do you shelter in place? Do we have to be on guard against deadly pathogens, nuclear weapons, or stray bullets? And what about “psychological hazards?"

Being a student has always been perilous, but with proper planning, schools can be ready to deal with emergencies of all types.

The government of the United States has prepared guidelines for schools to implement an emergency plan, which provide a thorough framework for doing so from start to finish. Even for those less versed in safety jargon and the typical approaches to emergency response planning, the guidelines are fairly straightforward and comprehensive. Six basic steps can help a school prepare for an emergency.

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Create an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) Committee

The EOP committee should be a collaborative team consisting of representatives from a variety of roles that cover all major stakeholder categories. The committee will work together to progress through the steps and (ideally) end up with a functioning, effective EOP.

As with any committee, there should be rules in place defining responsibility, conduct, schedule, deliverables, membership, and attendance.

Now you’ve got the committee. What do they do?

The government guidelines classify the necessary actions into the following categories:

  • Prevention
  • Protection
  • Mitigation
  • Response
  • Recovery

The first three deal with actions taken in preparation for potential emergencies. That is, before an emergency takes place. “Response” and “Recovery” make up the "during" and "after" parts. Keeping these in mind helps when establishing goals, objectives and actions.

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These categories give a sense of the overall mission of the committee, which is important to establish if you want commitment and participation from its members.

(Check out these 8 Things to Consider When Developing an Emergency Response Plan)

Know The Risks

The best way to guess what may happen in the future is to take a look at the past. People and businesses in the school’s area may have valuable input as to what hazards may be faced and what the previous outcomes have been. If the building across the street was swallowed by a sinkhole “way back when,” you probably want to know about it.

Where I live in Canada, one of the typical emergencies for which every business needs to be prepared is extreme weather. Up here, that can mean dangerous or impassible roads, vehicle problems, utility failure, and extreme cold. You do not want to find yourself outdoors in such an emergency, unprepared. The same is true if you work in a region prone to hurricanes or other types of extreme weather, but the preparation is much different.

(Learn about Cold Weather Dehydration)

There is no readymade, out-of-the-box plan. You have to consider all hazards – natural and otherwise – that may be reasonably possible in a given area.

The plan should also consider hazards faced by students and faculty outside the facility (after hours, at sporting events, on field trips) and plan for such scenarios.

Once the hazards are listed, the committee should decide what kind of risk they pose. Risk is a calculation of the probability of an occurrence and the severity if it were to happen. A meteor strike may be catastrophic, but is so vanishingly improbable that the risk it poses is actually very low. Those hazards posing the highest risk get priority in the control strategy.

Determine Goals and Objectives

Each emergency scenario should have a list of associated goals and objectives. Goals being the desired outcomes of the planning itself, such as the successful evacuation of the facility with no injuries or a successful roll call at the muster point.

Objectives establish concrete milestones for the EOP, such as performing a set number of annual drills, or providing training to staff.

The goals and objectives should be agreed upon by the committee and documented. They should be “SMART” goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s no use setting a goal if there’s no way to measure success after the fact. Similarly, there’s no point in setting a goal to get better… eventually.

Make a Plan

Now that you know the risks and what you want the EOP to do, you have to decide how you’re going to get there. US government guidelines suggest approaching this by:

  • Depicting the scenario
  • Determining the amount of time available to respond
  • Identifying decision points
  • Developing courses of action

This is a roundabout way of saying “you know the hazards, what are you going to do about them?”

The hierarchy of hazard controls (from most to least preferred solution) goes:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering controls
  • Administrative controls
  • PPE

This hierarchy should be followed when deciding what controls are going to be put in place. Often a combination will be utilized and the committee has to ensure that the resources and training are in place so that thy can be used effectively.

Any control strategy needs to consider staff and students who have disabilities, face language barriers, may have anxiety triggered by traumatic events, and anyone else who may need additional resources or attention.

(Learn more in A Primer on Engineering Controls)

Document, Document, Document

The EOP should be fully documented and acknowledged by management. Copies, in whatever media they are released, should be appropriately disseminated and made available to all relevant parties.

The plan should be written in plain language and avoid the use of unnecessary jargon. The intention should be clear to any layperson and all documents should be reviewed for consistency, adequacy, completeness, and clarity. Where possible, responsibilities should be summarized into a “cheat sheet“ so that faculty with defined responsibilities know their own, at the very least.

Practice Makes Permanent

The success of any emergency plan relies on individuals understanding the plan and their roles within it. The less people have to be instructed and directed in an actual emergency scenario, the better. People should know what to do and be able to do it as second nature.

Performing drills of the emergency plans is additionally important considering the people in question are numerous, densely populated and of a nature where following directions may not be their strong suit.

Fire drills have been a mainstay of schools all over the world for decades, and other emergency drills can largely follow the same template. Some of our older readers might remember ducking under desks during the Cold War, and kids in school now might live in areas where “active shooter” drills are routine. No matter the actual scenario, the idea is that with enough practice the procedure becomes routine and can be executed without thought or hesitation. When seconds count, this can be crucial.

The other purpose of performing drills is to refine and correct the plan itself. Plans are developed in earnest, but a drill may reveal unanticipated performance, gaps, oversights and other issues with the approach. The lessons learned from performing a drill should be applied to improving the EOP as a whole.

Emergency plans often fail to adequately account for the effects of panic and the normal blasé reactions of students. Disinterested “going through the motions” is still preferable to panic, which is where the “surprise drill” has value. Students may be less inclined to respond in an orderly fashion if they know it’s a real emergency. Sometimes it’s better they find out it was a real emergency when safely at the muster point and out of harm’s way.

It’s an arduous process, but if we consider what’s at stake it’s more than worthwhile. For all the effort an EOP takes, everyone involved hopes there’s never a need to use it. But if there is, you’ll be ready.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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