If disaster strikes, is your school ready?

Every year, disaster strikes communities across Canada, as well as the U.S.A. It could be a violent attack, severe weather or a virulent illness. Whatever the crisis, an emergency plan can save lives, minimize injuries and property damage, and let life return to normal as soon as possible.

Identify Hazards

The first step in emergency planning is to identify hazards the school may face. These fall into three main categories:

  • Natural events, such as severe weather, earthquakes and epidemics.
  • Technological events, including fire, explosion and power outages.
  • Human-caused events, such as terrorism, sabotage or a violent incident.

The past is often a good predictor of the future, so start by looking at the types of emergencies local schools have faced over the years.

In terms of natural events, is your community in a flood zone? Is there a history of catastrophic winter storms, tornadoes, or other severe weather? For technological events, is the school near a facility that uses dangerous substances? How old is the building? Is there a chance of collapse, flooding or power failure?

Human-caused events are more difficult to predict. Has there ever been a bomb threat, a serious custody issue or malicious bullying? Try to identify events that, although they may not have happened before, could happen in the future.

Assess the Risk

The next step is to assess the frequency and severity of risks. What is the likelihood that the event will happen? If it does, how serious will it be? Grading the risk helps in determining what resources will be needed.

Snowstorms may have High Frequency with Low Severity. On the other hand, an earthquake or tornado could have a rating of Low Frequency but High Severity.

Most emergencies are local in nature. That means the challenges your community might face, such as severe weather or a pandemic, are probably the same as those your school faces. To avoid mistakes during the confusion that comes with a disastrous event, the school emergency plan should be compatible with the community’s plan.

As new risks continually come to the fore, it is important to update a school’s emergency plan every year. This annual review should involve talking to the community’s emergency management coordinator about measures currently in place and what may be expected of the school in a time of emergency. For instance, a high school may be designated as a shelter.

Cover the Bases

The four pillars of emergency management are:

  • Prevention and Mitigation: measures to reduce or eliminate effects of a crisis.
  • Preparedness: measures in place to ensure effective response to an emergency.
  • Response: actions to respond to the event.
  • Recovery: actions to recover from the effects of the incident.

Following are a few key considerations in each category of the plan; this list is not inclusive.

Prevention and Mitigation

  • Identify ways to reduce the risks. A well-rehearsed response and proactive controls can lessen the impact of a high-frequency, low- or medium-severity event.
  • Work with nearby businesses to coordinate with their crisis plans.
  • Control people entering and leaving the school. Require all visitors to sign in.
  • Review traffic patterns. Where possible, keep cars, buses and trucks away from school buildings.
  • Review landscaping. Make sure bushes where dangerous items can be placed or people can hide do not obscure the building.

Preparedness

  • Share a detailed site plan for the school with your local police, fire department, ambulance service, and other emergency preparedness agencies.
  • Identify several evacuation routes and rallying points. Your first or second options may be blocked or unavailable if a catastrophe occurs.
  • Practise responding to crisis on a regular basis. Schools hold regular fire drills – but what about also practising for an earthquake or bomb threat?
  • Have a plan, including a spokesperson, to communicate externally with parents, the media and the community. Keep all contact information readily available.
  • Inspect equipment regularly, to ensure it operates during emergencies.
  • Have a plan for discharging students. Remember that parents and guardians may not be able to pick up their child.

Response

  • Establish a command structure for responding to a crisis. Review and approve the roles and responsibilities of staff, school board personnel, police, fire officials, and others in different types of emergencies.

Recovery

  • Return to the business of teaching and learning as soon as possible.
  • Identify and approve a team of well-qualified mental health workers to counsel faculty and students after a crisis. Recovery takes time, so the services of this team may be ongoing.
  • Advise parents how the school will help students recover from the crisis.

To be effective, an emergency plan must be rehearsed regularly -- and not always for the same type of event. Involve students and parents in the practice.

Post the plan in a central area such as the staff room, with backup copies in the principal’s office, custodian’s office and board office, or another protected, accessible area.