Taking the Next Step in School Preparedness

No district or school wants to imagine the effects of a large scale disaster on their community. Often, the phrase "it will not happen here" or "it will not happen to us" is thrown around. In reality, regardless of geographical location, all districts in Texas are vulnerable to some type of large scale disaster, whether it is manmade or natural. These threats, disasters, and hazards will ultimately disrupt the school day and send the school into a state of crisis. It is the responsibility of administrators to ensure staff is trained and the district is adequately prepared to respond to and recover from these incidents. In order to respond and recover effectively, districts must focus their attention on preparedness.

It is the responsibility of administrators to ensure staff is trained and the district is adequately prepared to respond to and recover from these incidents.

Most school districts have an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that outlines actions to be taken in the event of a crisis. It is important to remember an EOP is always a work in progress that needs continuous updating. Drills are a mechanism in which schools and districts can identify areas of the plan that need to be updated or changed, and also those that work well. These drills also allow schools/districts to train staff and develop relationships with local first responders. Typically, there are three types of drills: 1) tabletop drills, 2) functional drills, and 3) full scale drills (Wilder, Szpytek, and Groeneweg, 2011).

A tabletop is conducted in an informal, stress-free environment. It allows a scenario to be presented and constructive discussion to take place between the participants in terms of their EOP components. The participants can identify problem areas in the EOP and make updates and changes to resolve the issues. No equipment or resources are mobilized. A functional drill is more realistic in nature. It allows participants to practice their specific roles or functions in an emergency situation. This type of drill includes a timed component and is as close to a real event as possible without actually moving staff and resources. On the other hand, a full scale drill is a lengthy event that takes place on location. Resources and staff are mobilized as needed. All actions are taken as if it were a real emergency (Wilder, Szpytek, and Groeneweg, 2011). Regardless of the drill chosen, they should all involve first responders and community emergency management personnel as necessary.

The question school personnel should ask is not if the disaster happens, but when the disaster happens, are we as a district/campus prepared?

There are several steps a school district should take prior to conducting any type of drill. First, allow a sufficient amount of time for planning. It is suggested that planning begin 9 to 12 months before the drill is to be conducted. A committee made up of all agencies involved (i.e. the district, local first responders, emergency management personnel, etc.) is useful in coordinating and sustaining the planning process. The committee should meet regularly to discuss the planning progress over time. Second, the components of the EOP that are being tested should be established. This means clearly stating a purpose for the drill and what information is to be derived (Holloway, 2007). The type of drill, location, and personnel involved is all dependent upon what the objective of the drill is. Third, when designing the exercise, make sure it is realistic and resembles an actual emergency. The scenario for the drill should mirror an incident that is likely to occur in that location. Districts should utilize props and volunteer victims as necessary to increase the reality. The final step is to engage members of the community and students. It is likely that in a real disaster, the community will provide resources such as counselors, first responders, and police. Students most likely will be involved in an actual event, so in an effort to make the drill as realistic as possible, students should be present. This will allow for components such as accountability and reunification to be analyzed. Once the drill has been conducted, it is important to debrief and develop an After Action Report (AAR). This will be the district's opportunity to make changes to their EOP and also highlight what worked well for them (Holloway, 2007). Developing the AAR and following through with the changes is perhaps the most important part of the drill (United States Department of Education, 2007).

When disasters strike, it is sometimes difficult for people to think clearly and react in the appropriate manner. This is why it is important to practice drills: having safety practices internalized will ensure that staff and students remember how to behave in moments of crises.

As the internal and external threats to school districts increase, it is important to ensure that preparation is taken seriously. This includes developing an all-hazards EOP and also testing components of the EOP by conducting drills. It is time to "Take the Next Step" and ensure written policy is transferable to real world situations. The question school personnel should ask is not if the disaster happens, but when the disaster happens, are we as a district/campus prepared? Society expects that schools are safe and prepared to protect children in the event of a disaster (Hull, 2011).

References

Holloway, L. (2007). Emergency preparedness: Tabletop exercise improves readiness. Professional Safety, August 2007 Issue, 48-51.

Hull, B. (2010). Changing realities in school safety and preparedness. Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Planning, 5 (1), 440-450.

United States Department of Education. (2007). Helpful hints for school emergency management. Emergency Response and Crisis Management Technical Assistance Center, 2 (4), 1-8.

Wilder, S., Szpytek, S., Groeneweg, C. (2011). Emergency preparedness drills. Risk Management, October 2011 Issue, 18-19.