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In case of emergency: Schools that prepare for the worst can avoid a world of hurt  

Summer 2010

California is famous for its diversity, with more than 38 million residents boasting myriad cultures and points of view. They’ve spread themselves out over some of the world’s most diverse geography and natural environments, from the sun-baked deserts of the south to the lush rain forests of the northern coast, with snowy mountains ranging majestically in between.

Unfortunately, the state’s unfettered variety extends to all manner of disasters and emergencies, too, from natural calamities like earthquakes, wildfires and floods to manmade crises like bomb threats, crime and violence.

No place is risk-free, of course. But in a sometimes-dangerous world, schools are supposed to be havens of safety and security.

“Schools may be the only safe place in some communities,” notes Bob Spears, director of emergency services for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

For the leadership and staffs of California schools, that reality translates into an enormous responsibility. Schools and their personnel are expected to be ready for anything—and everything.

“Safety is always going to be the number one priority,” asserts Gary McIntire, superintendent of the 1,300-student Susanville Elementary School District in rural Lassen County. “It cuts to the core of everything else we try to do. Children cannot learn if they are not and do not feel safe. When they are in school, their safety is our greatest responsibility.”

Which begs the question: Just how well are schools doing at safeguarding their students?

In recent years, emergencies created by people—intruders on campus, school violence and the like—have drawn considerable attention and action, but what about the larger looming threats of natural disaster?

California waits on shaky ground for the next big earthquake, to cite its best-known hazard. It’s inevitable. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger temblor striking here some time in the next 30 years at more than 99 percent.

And wildfires, says LAUSD’s Spears, “are pretty much an annual event.”

Dealing with disaster

Diversity isn’t limited to California’s demographics, terrain, climate or dangers. It also applies to the state of our schools’ emergency preparedness; some are better equipped to deal with disaster than others.

“Most schools surveyed in California were affected by one or more emergencies or crises in recent years, ranging from storms to power failures to school violence,” Megumi Kano and Linda B. Bourque at the UCLA School of Public Health reported in a 2007 survey.

While nearly 88 percent of the 157 California public schools surveyed reported having site-specific disaster plans, most of which were annually reviewed, little more than a quarter had an emergency response team, and fewer than one in three had an emergency preparedness coordinator; fewer than one in five had dedicated funding for emergency preparedness.

The title of the survey summarized the researchers’ conclusion: “A Written Plan Is a Good Start, but Only a Start.”

“The schools generally feel well prepared to handle future emergencies,” Kano and Bourque wrote, but “some limitations were identified.” They went on to give specific recommendations for planning, training, education, and equipment and supplies.

“In theory, every school district follows the same models and standards,” says Cathy Coy, disaster preparedness coordinator for the Long Beach Unified School District. “But I don’t know how true that is on the ground. Every district has its own circumstances, issues and problems.”

Awareness is high

On the whole, most experts say emergency preparedness in schools has much improved over the last 10 to 15 years.

“I think the awareness of the need for emergency preparedness is quite high among school administrators, particularly given the wide range of hazards that California schools face,” says Kano, who is a senior researcher at UCLA’s Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center.

She notes, for example, that the Field Act has made most new or renovated school buildings admirably earthquake resistant. Other “hardware” needs, like having sufficient fire extinguishers or first-aid kits on campus, have also by and large been met.

Overall emergency management planning, on the other hand, remains problematic for some districts.

“California schools are required to have school safety plans,” Kano says, but “I believe the extent to which schools and school districts are prepared varies widely throughout the state. I know that certain districts and schools have done an excellent job in preparing themselves for emergency situations, while others have done very little.”

Mitigation, preparedness and 3 Rs

There are four generally accepted phases of emergency management:

  • Mitigation requires taking the necessary actions before an emergency to minimize or reduce potential consequences.
  • Preparedness involves advance activities that help ensure students, staff and campus survive an emergency with minimum risk of injury or damage.
  • Response covers actions taken during and immediately after an emergency to ensure health and safety.
  • Recovery and reconstruction describe efforts to minimize errors and delays in returning to normal, and the reduction of any psychological trauma and financial hardships.

Hazard mitigation, at its most basic, comes down to the age-old premise that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Adequate brush clearing and nonflammable roof materials can help make schools less vulnerable to fires, for example. Storing science lab chemicals safely and bolting down library bookshelves are other commonsense precautions.

Experts say every school campus should be regularly and methodically surveyed for real or potential problems. This should not be a paper exercise. Staff should do the legwork and look closely for latent threats, identifying, documenting and promptly addressing them.

A good emergency preparedness plan, according to Maureen Lewis, facilities coordinator for the Redding School District, contains a hierarchy of decision-makers and their backups. It identifies teams responsible for handling issues like search and rescue, first aid, utilities control, and evacuation procedures at each campus. It contains maps, phone numbers and lists of emergency supplies and locations. It is updated at least once a year, with records kept meticulously.

But a completed plan that’s simply stashed away in the principal’s desk or at the district office is no substitute for true preparedness, says Wayne Bennett, a firefighting captain and head of Survival Skills & Co., a Wrightwood-based company that trains and outfits school districts for emergencies.

“The one overall thing lacking in almost all schools has been training,” Bennett says. “Plans all call for search and rescue, triage, disaster first aid, and controlling utilities, yet few [educators on site] know what to do, when to do it, or how. Teachers have been assigned roles within the teams but have no idea what that means or what is involved. As a professional firefighter, I know that most won’t be able to pull off their plan if they have not been trained and then practiced.”

That’s the assessment of a man whose career is built on conservative caution, and it may not square with actual practice. However, Kano, at UCLA’s Injury Prevention Research Center, agrees.

“My impression is that in many cases a plan sits on a shelf somewhere, but not much is done in terms of actual planning or making sure that everyone is familiar with the emergency procedures if something were to actually happen,” Kano says.

“The standard fire and earthquake drills are still commonly done in elementary schools, but in secondary schools, they become less common because they are harder to schedule and manage during the school day. I’ve heard some secondary school administrators express concern that their students are likely to just leave school and not come back if class was interrupted by a drill. Drills are seen as a major disruption of school activities and are kept to a minimum at best.”

Do the drill

To be sure, finding time during the school day to conduct drills and training is a major challenge, but it’s also crucial, says Redding SD’s Lewis. “People are working in different places, on different shifts. Yet it’s important that they train together because they will have to work as a team in a crisis.”

In the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, with 1,099 school sites and more than 600,000 students , the task of training is particularly monumental—yet it’s overseen by just one man: Spears, the district’s emergency services director.

“If I visited three schools a day during the school year, I still couldn’t see them all,” Spears says.

Nonetheless, the former fire chief works hard to make disaster preparedness part of the innate district culture. He also collaborates closely with local authorities and agencies like the American Red Cross, which has pre-positioned well-stocked containers of emergency food and shelter supplies at 26 L.A. high schools.

And despite the vast breadth of the district and the sheer numbers of people involved, two emergency drills are scheduled each year at every school, Spears says, one in the fall and one in the spring.

Spears has provided each school with a set of tags to be affixed to 40 “victims,” indicating the fate—injured, lost, or some other sort of distress—that’s purportedly befallen them in a disaster simulation.

“It makes the exercise much more realistic, because now the teachers who have broken into their respective teams have actual ‘victims,’” Spears says. “They must react and figure out the best treatment or response. It really refreshes their skills.”

After the drill, according to Spears, a site administrator files an online report describing the emergency response—what went well and what did not. The information goes to the district for analysis. The school receives a certificate noting its preparedness or where improvements are needed.

Institutional glitches to guard against

The basic requirements of a good emergency plan are well-known and easy to find. Organizations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the California Department of Education can all provide abundant reference materials.

Implementation is trickier. Kano enumerated and expanded on six particular problems schools typically must grapple with in their emergency preparations:

  • A lack of resources: “It takes a lot of resources to develop a good plan and keep it updated.”
  • Competing priorities: “Schools are under a lot of pressure to increase their students’ academic performance, so everything else becomes a lesser priority.”
  • Insufficient expertise: “You need a broad set of expertise to develop an effective plan; not every [expert] has to be a school staff member, but in those cases, networks need to be built with relevant local agencies.”
  • Inadequate leadership or support: “Schools won’t engage in things not supported by the principal or district.”
  • Inertia: “Many schools don’t feel it’s worth investing a lot in preparing for things that don’t occur very frequently.”
  • Avoidance: “Schools often assume emergency response/management/planning is not their responsibility, but instead the responsibility of their local fire departments, law enforcement and emergency medical services.”

‘The safest place is a school’

Larry Borland is chief of safety and security for the 25,000-student Academy School District in Colorado Springs, Colo. He is also president-elect of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers and a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education. He adds a seventh challenge:

“One of the primary things that sets K–12 emergency plans apart from anything else is that schools operate in loco parentis. They have a legal responsibility to protect the children under their care. If a fire broke out in a business or a courthouse, an alarm would ring and people would evacuate. It would be generally assumed that adults would take care of themselves and their children. That’s obviously not the case in schools.”

Above all else, schools must ensure children’s safety, and they must be prepared to hand those children off to their parents, sometimes even before the crisis is over.

“When something has happened, parents will always want to come to the school as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what kind of emergency. Parents are always going to want to come and get their children,” Borland observes.

“It’s important for a school district and law enforcement to coordinate communications, to quickly let parents and the public know what exactly to do. The worst thing may be going to the school. It might be better if people went to another location. My experience is that parents will always come, but they will listen if you have a clear, reasoned message.”

Spears, at L.A. Unified, notes an additional concern: While school personnel are trained to help out in a crisis, they are also parents and people with families—families that may be in peril in a catastrophe. “They’re human. They’re going to want to check on their families,” LAUSD’s Spears says of school personnel.

“Part of my agenda is to make sure that all district employees have prepared their own homes and families for an emergency so that they will have some certainty that things will be OK, because there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to leave and go home. “We all believe that in an emergency, the safest place is a school. We need to make sure parents and the community have the same opinion.”

Scott LaFee is a regular contributor to California Schools.


Prepare to be prepared

Here are a few select tips school leaders should keep in mind in their preparations for coping with emergencies:

  • Don’t assume you know all of the risks. Use all available expertise.
  • Remember that natural disasters can have a cascade effect: Summer wildfires can mean winter mudslides.
  • Think about how transportation will be affected in a crisis.
  • Every school should have enough food, water and power to maintain operations for three days without outside assistance.
  • Keep good records and logs of preparedness planning and actions taken before and after an emergency. They may help in getting reimbursements or payment for supplies and damages.
  • Don’t overlook the needs of students and staff with disabilities. There should be specific plans made for their safety in a crisis.
  • Avoid jargon in disaster plans. In a crisis, specialized terminology is often forgotten or confusing. Use clear, concise language.
  • Determine what kinds of informal expertise might exist at your school or in your district. For example, are there parents with special skills that could be useful in an emergency?
  • Be prepared to offer refuge to nonstudents. In a disaster, a school may become a community shelter and focal point for recovery efforts.

—Scott LaFee


Emergency kit:

A sampling of online resources for school emergency planning

California Department of Education: Disaster Resources
Scroll down—this Web page includes information links on the impacts of emergencies on everything from average daily attendance and preschool and nutrition programs to guidance in helping kids cop with tragedy and beyond.

California Seismic Safety Commission: Student and Teacher resource page
This information can help explain and prepare for seismic events. There’s also a Teacher Resource Center that helps teachers by providing tools for classroom instruction related to earth sciences.

U.S. Department of Education: Emergency Planning
This page can help school leaders plan for any emergency, including natural disasters, violent incidents and terrorist acts.

National Association of School Psychologists: School Safety and Crisis Resources
“NASP has made these materials available free of charge to the public in order to promote the ability of children and youth to cope with traumatic or unsettling events,” according to the website. Several resources were specifically developed for school teachers and administrators.

Iowa Association of School Boards: ‘Lessons Learned: Natural Disasters Toolkit for Schools’
IASB prepared this booklet after a series of tornados and floods struck the state. It looks at emergency planning and response from the unique perspective of school governance.