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More than meets the eye: High-quality emergency plans

Date: 
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Among the state’s 1,295 schools, how many would you guess have their own individualized high-quality emergency plans? Answer: By June 30, there will be 1,295.

That’s when a new law requires each school building to have its own high-quality emergency plan in place. Note that’s school building, not district. That’s because each building represents unique challenges and circumstances. And it’s also because each building contains very different populations: Preschoolers are a lifetime away from understanding and maturity to high schoolers.

High-quality emergency plans are a buzz phrase among schools nationwide in response to the sign of the times. They are called “high quality” because they consider all emergency scenarios – from nature to manmade. Simple fire and tornado drills just don’t cut it anymore.

But long before administrators and staff sit down to craft their high-quality emergency plans, they need to literally bring stakeholders to the table.

“I invited the Polk County Emergency Management, the police department and the fire department,” said Pam Rosa, safety compliance specialist for the Des Moines Public Schools and chair of the Iowa School Safety Alliance. “We ended up having a lot of meetings in which our plans evolved.”

The gist of the conversations is understanding each other’s needs: Police and firefighters come into an emergency from quite a different perspective to that of students and school personnel.

“For instance, the fire department thought that the principal should go to the command post during an emergency,” Rosa said. “But principals can’t leave their students and staff during an emergency situation. Instead, we have people on staff who are familiar with the school and student population, and they can be at the command center.”

Setting common expectations – and learning one another’s languages – is the goal.

“We were able to sort through one another’s needs,” Rosa said. “And now we are settled in what is going to happen in an emergency.

“We have a common language, we know who to call in an emergency, we even know who to call for questions. There are many things happening on a daily basis when the relationships really matter.”

These newfound relationships are beneficial to both school and emergency personnel. In one instance, a firefighter died on duty and the city had planned a large procession through the streets en route to the funeral.

“I mentioned that the procession was going by two schools, one of which would be the midst of dismissing,” Rosa said. “Instead, the school delayed dismissal and had teachers and students make signs thanking the firefighters for their service. What could have been a disaster with hundreds of parents picking up their children while the procession was trying to get through turned into a positive experience.”

In drafting a high-quality emergency plan, districts usually take the lead in writing it. But it’s up to a school’s emergency team – often made up of the principal, nurse, office manager and custodians – to adapt the district plan into their building’s unique plan.

“You’re going to have your emergency maps, how do they evacuate?” Rosa said. “The school’s emergency team will sit down and talk scenarios. Even an equipment failure where smoke fills the school in the middle of winter should be considered. We know these kids need a bus to stay warm. The plan needs to include how many students are in the school, for if you need to send buses, you need to know how many.

“Also consider students with special needs – how are you going to accommodate them? And if you evacuate, where is your predetermined site?”

Rosa said a high-quality plan will also include what to do if students are arriving or being dismissed when an emergency arises. Something like that recently occurred in the Des Moines district when a gun-involved dispute broke out near a school.

“We got the kids back into the building, gave parents the option to take their child or come into the building,” she said.

One thing is certain: A school’s plan will constantly evolve and should be updated at least once a year. The updating should include emergency contacts and even evacuation sites.

“After a lockdown drill, have a conversation – what went well, what did not?” Rosa said. “The emergency team should ask that every time there’s a drill.”

Emergency teams should meet at least quarterly, if not monthly.

Many schools get parents involved through their PTAs or PTOs.

“It’s important to get parents involved,” Rosa said. “But you can’t tell them everything. We don’t share our plans outside district personnel. I mean, what if you told that one wrong parent?”

While creating a high-quality emergency plan may seem intimidating, there are resources and webinars available. In the meantime, Rosa recommends, take one step at a time.

“If you look at it as a whole, it can be very overwhelming, so work on one piece at a time,” she said. “Get those stakeholders in, get your communications lists in. It eventually comes together.”

Things to consider when making an emergency operations plan

  • Communication. Who are the key people who need to be called and what is are their numbers. You should not be searching for the superintendent’s phone number in an emergency. How will key personnel communicate? Often cell phones are not a good option because of their limitation.
  • Who does police/fire/emergency management contact when they have emergency information, such as something in the neighborhood? 
  • Who controls card access, how do you contact them?
  • Who communicates with parents during an emergency or event and what is the method for communication?
  • Who do you contact if you need transportation?
  • What is your plan if you need to transport students in an emergency and your drivers are not available?
  • Where are your evacuation sites and who do you contact to access the site?
  • Do all of your staff have keys to their rooms?
  • How do substitutes secure their rooms?
  • Have a substitute document with necessary information, such as how to ask for help in their classroom, etc. 
  • Where do parents go in emergencies?
  • How do staff access their emergency plans?

School Lockdown Drill Assessment Checklist

  1. Parents were informed about the drill prior to its implementation.
  2. Scenario was reviewed with staff prior to the event and advised of their responsibilities during a Lockdown Drill.
  3. Janitorial, Maintenance,  & Food Service personnel were included in the drill.
  4. School security officials were advised a Lockdown Drill would be occurring on the scheduled date/time.
  5. Students received preparedness instruction prior to the Lockdown Drill event
  6. The Lockdown Alerting/Announcement procedure was clearly communicated and understood.
  7. Students/staff were secured and followed procedures and protocols according to the preparedness plan: (doors & windows  closed and locked, shades/blinds drawn, seated on floor in corner, lights off, keep quiet, etc.)
  8. Roll call/ attendance was taken for students and school staff members.
  9. Teachers/staff were able to initiate Green/Red Card system on classroom doors:
    RED: Emergency Assistance Needed
    GREEN: OK – No Medical Emergencies
  10. Teachers/classrooms have a means / method to communicate with the main office.
  11. Hallways, bathrooms *and open areas were cleared, and students directed to closest safe classroom. (*In a real lockdown situation if a threat is  present student/staff remain in bathroom)
  12. Cafeteria and Gym were secured by staff  member (as appropriate )
  13. Announcement was clearly made to signal the end of the Lockdown and indicate the drill/exercise was over. Police/security officials were advised the Lockdown Drill has been completed.
  14. A Debriefing session was conducted to discuss lessons learned and/or measures for improvement.

Considerations for drills:

Multiple conditions
Lockdown situations may occur at other than routine classroom time. It is beneficial to conduct drills and have protocols in place for:

  • Lunch period when cafeterias are occupied
  • During class changes
  • Recess or gym classes
  • Arrivals and dismissals/ school buses
  • After school hours: dances, theater, athletic events

Simple language lockdown announcements

Use plain English to announce a Lockdown. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) discourages using codes and signals because it may confuse people*

  • Use clear statement to indicate lockdown is being activated
  • Make sure it can be heard/communicated everywhere on the school campus
  • Have an “ALL Clear” procedure to terminate the Lockdown so everyone can recognize the emergency situation has been resolved

* If codes are used make sure Substitute Teachers are aware of them

Communications:

  • Strictly prohibit/monitor use of cell phones by staff/students. During an actual emergency they can lead to confusion or misinformation.
  • Use color-coded card system to indicate room status. Cards can be posted on doors /windows: Green=Safe, No assistance needed  Red= Emergency, Help needed immediately

Shelter-in-place
External threats may require school personnel to take necessary actions to secure the building depending on the nature of the danger, hazard or toxic threat.

  • Chemical or biological agents require sealing the premises for infiltration:
  • Turning off HVAC systems and water supply lines (done on by facilities)
  • Covering air intakes
  • Sealing exterior doors and windows
  • Police looking for a criminal suspect or escaped prisoner
  • No immediate threat to students and staff
  • Perimeter/exterior doors secured. No one leaves the building.
  • Halls are cleared and business as usual in classroom
  • Teachers should be prepared to secure their classroom

Things to consider when making an emergency operations plan

  • Communication. Who are the key people who need to be called and what is are their numbers. You should not be searching for the superintendent’s phone number in an emergency. How will key personnel communicate? Often cell phones are not a good option because of their limitation.
  • Who does police/fire/emergency management contact when they have emergency information, such as something in the neighborhood? 
  • Who controls card access, how do you contact them?
  • Who communicates with parents during an emergency or event and what is the method for communication?
  • Who do you contact if you need transportation?
  • What is your plan if you need to transport students in an emergency and your drivers are not available?
  • Where are your evacuation sites and who do you contact to access the site?
  • Do all of your staff have keys to their rooms?
  • How do substitutes secure their rooms?
  • Have a substitute document with necessary information, such as how to ask for help in their classroom, etc. 
  • Where do parents go in emergencies?
  • How do staff access their emergency plans?
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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on September 26, 2020 at 5:20pm.