Comprehensive emergency preparedness planning for schools

A common perception is that local authorities and rescue services have perfectly integrated plans and will respond quickly, efficiently and effectively to any incident by immediately taking control. The accuracy of this claim varies widely depending on the national and regional organisation of emergency services. However, the best response takes time to unfold and is also dependant on the information and materials that have to be provided by the management team of the incident target.

A number of actions need to be taken before the arrival of rescue services to preserve quality of life and limit damage and destruction. The site management is solely responsible for realising that a critical and dangerous event has occurred, communicating the event's occurrence to the emergency services, warning the building occupants and communicating their initial response actions.

The concept of school emergency preparedness planning can be a daunting prospect for school principals and local authorities. Once (and if) the majority of possible risks to a school are exposed the planning committee often feels overwhelmed with the task and becomes emotionally disturbed with thoughts of what could happen to the students. These anxieties are then compounded by liability issues. To impose this responsibility without proper guidance, support and financial resources on a group that has no knowledge or expertise in this field is unfair and dangerous. When the agenda is driven by time shortage, emotional pressure and the threat of liability, plans are often hastily developed without thorough reflection and professional input.

A number of school emergency planning committees have completed research on the Internet and used plans that they found online, modifying them to their needs. Although these plans provide a good base, without understanding basic principles of emergency planning and crisis management these modifications are mostly ineffective and not synchronised with their environment. This is especially true when the model plans come from countries with a completely different emergency service structure and terminology.

The initiative to introduce or review school emergency management plans should ultimately come from legislative and executive bodies, as this is an area where the consequences of a critical incident extend well beyond the initial management of the acute phase. The co-ordination of school continuity and the psychological support of students, staff and parents during and after the incident will well exceed the resources, knowledge and manpower of school authorities.

Depending on the available resources, national emergency management agencies or institutions, as well as independent experts or consulting groups who have experience in this area, should be involved. A National School Emergency Planning Committee should be formed and commissioned to:

  • analyse readiness;
  • research and review recommendations and models from existing organisations internationally;
  • analyse critical events that have affected schools in the past and expose any deficits in the emergency response, school continuity, and post-incident phases; and
  • identify stakeholders.
  • Using this information, the national planning committee can then develop training materials, generic templates, and standard operating procedures, which should then be submitted for review by regional school boards and emergency service agencies, to expose any incompatibilities.

    By developing a universal concept and using a central body with a clearly defined network and reporting system, plans and design tools can be constantly reviewed for their effectiveness. Shortcomings can be exposed and modifications easily communicated in an economical and logistically efficient manner. Incidents involving a multi-jurisdictional response are easier to manage and educational personnel who change

    locations can easily integrate themselves without extensive re-training. Once a concept has been developed, it can be passed on to regional schools committees and, ultimately, to the schools themselves. Each school should form its own Emergency Management Design Team (EMDT), which would have the following responsibilities:

  • adapting templates and guidelines to the environment where they will be used;
  • communication with, and integration of, local emergency and security services;
  • formation and training of a Crisis Management Team (CMT), the operational and decision-making body during a crisis;
  • dynamic risk and threat analysis;
  • mitigation; and
  • continuity planning.
  • The members of a school EMDT will be a select group of professionals who are highly specialised in their field but may lack experience or training in general management principles and techniques. A clear strategy and structured approach to planning - complemented with guidance, professional support, generic templates and relevant literature - plays the most important role in the success of this team. Initial training and literature should inform the EMDT members of the techniques and terminology used in emergency planning and throughout the emergency service community. The principles, objectives and priorities of mitigation, risk management, consequence management and continuity must be clearly defined and related to the education environment. Responsibilities and the operational structure of the fire, police, emergency medical services and local authorities should be clearly described. Generic templates for standard operating procedures and planning tools should be provided that are compatible with and easily modified to the environment where they will be applied. Guidance and support from emergency management professionals should also be made available. The possibility of conflict within the EMDT is high, because it is easy to become confused between emotion and logic or reason without the benefit of experience or formal training in emergency management .

    The EMDT's exact composition depends on the organisational status of the school and its directive body. There is a difference between private schools, which are governed independently from central government, and state schools, where certain administrative functions lie with a central body or board. The composition of an EMDT should include:

  • the school principal/head and deputy;

  • a financial manager or representative;

  • an emergency services liaison officer;

  • an EMDT communication officer;

  • an operations officer; and

  • an intelligence officer.

    Members will consist of administration staff and teachers, which presents a problem regarding time management due to the extremely inflexible time allocation of educational staff. EMDT meetings will probably only be possible at weekly or monthly intervals, as opposed to workshops that can be planned to last for hours or days. Meetings must be extremely effective: a closed group is of great importance when developing ideas and operating procedures. An open discussion involving various stakeholders should be carried out on separate occasions.

    Because of the complexity of emergency planning there are many decisions which will be made that are not immediately transparent to the larger community involved, but have been well thought through, are correct and have been decided on by the EMDT. It is therefore necessary that a large amount of trust and acceptance be placed with the EMDT. To avoid plans being imposed on the CMT without proper discussion, an EMDT communications officer should be responsible for distributing information and processing feedback.

    Once formed and after initial training, the EMDT should be supplied with a template to conduct a hazard and risk analysis, identifying probable scenarios and their consequences on humans, infrastructure and school continuity. Consequences for individual scenarios should be compared with preparedness, a collective of internal and external response. Carrying out a hazard and risk analysis raises situation awareness and creates a road map for further planning and setting priorities.

    The result of school emergency preparedness planning, and the consequences of neglecting it, cannot be properly measured. Once an incident has occurred the effect can last a lifetime. Extreme structural damage, contamination or a breakdown of critical infrastructure effecting large secondary education facilities can, without proper continuity planning, lead to a significant interruption of academic activities and influence dramatically the career paths of individuals or groups. Continuity planning must involve input from logistical and technical experts from different fields and plans must be mature before an incident occurs. Internet-based learning systems or professional crisis management companies can provide solutions, but these are most effective when used in the planning phase.

    Dealing with the devastating psychological consequences of witnessing the death, disability or pain of students and colleagues probably poses the greatest challenge. In an environment where emotional ties can be equal in strength to bonds present in the family setting, guilty feelings of not having been able to help or not having been prepared can lead to depressive psychological states or suicide, complicating and aggravating an already unstable situation.

    The effort alone of school emergency planning can play an important role in preventing or healing psychological wounds. Accepting beforehand that something could happen, actively planning for that event and ultimately being able to say 'we did what was possible' can comfort a human soul and is the essence of emergency planning.

    Mike Kay is an emergency manager who worked with the Bavarian Red Cross and is an affiliate of the Universities of Tübingen and Munich. He is currently putting together Plansafe, an interdisciplinary emergency preparedness consulting group linking academic institutions, industry, relief agencies and government bodies to produce innovative and practical solutions for emergency management

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