Top Ten Best Practices for School Emergencies

by | May 19, 2023 | FREE Downloads, Gary's Blog

An emergency of some sort may happen at your school.

The question is:

How do you respond?

In today’s unpredictable world, it is imperative that schools prioritize preparedness and have effective protocols in place to handle emergencies swiftly and efficiently. From natural disasters to active assailant situations, school administrators, educators, and staff must be equipped with the knowledge and tools to protect the safety and well-being of students. As a School Safety Professional, here are my top 10 best practices for responding to school emergencies. By adopting these practices, schools can ensure the safety of their students and staff, while instilling a sense of confidence and resilience within the entire school community.

Responding to a fire at a school building

#1: PLAN

Preparation is key when it comes to school safety. By having a plan and using the right tools, you can help make school safer and get everyone on the same page with your communications around school safety.

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Work with your First Responders

so your school has a comprehensive Emergency Operations Plan and a crisis communication plan inplac Part of your communication plan should include messaging to staff, students, and families to make them aware plans are in place for keeping everyone safe and informed during an emergency.

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Communicate

on your school or district website that your school notification system will be used to give timely informationin the event of an emergency. Also use emails, newsletters, the school policy book, etc., to reinforce this message.

Parents will appreciate knowing all the efforts you have put in to make their school safer, and that can help them trust you and follow directions when an event does occur.

Somehow you need to let schools know that although they can share with their community, they have an EOP developed with First Responders, the actual plan is not subject to FOIA requests in most states.

#2: Identify Spokespeople

Who will represent the school or district in communications with parents and the media? Avoid confusion.There needs to be a clear understanding of who is responsible for alerting parents during an emergency.

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Pre-determine who speaks

for the school during an emergency, such as a situation when the school might need to use a lockdown option – is it the building principal, or a representative from the central office? Does itdepend upon the type of situation as to who alerts the public?

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Have a back-up person

or persons in case the primary representative is unavailable or incapacitated.

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Make sure

that both First Responders and local media know who represents the district.

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Train your staff

to understand that they are not to talk with the media unless directed to by the public information officer ordesignee.

#3: Messaging Training

Make certain all authorized users of your school notification system know how to push out messages in an emergency.

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Ensure that staff know

how to use all modes of communication such as voice messages, text messaging, email messaging, and smartphone app launch techniques.

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Ensure more than one person within the school office is trained

and competent on the use of your school notification system so if one of the main users cannot send abroadcast, others can.

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If your messaging system does not have web, phone, and smartphone app launch capabilities,

find a messaging system that does. An emergency may prevent staff from accessing their normal devices, and in such cases, a phone or smartphone app launch may be your only option for sending abroadcast.

#4: Test Procedures and Systems

Be sure to exercise part of your Emergency Operation Plans multiple times a year. Examples of an exercise can range from a fire drill, a tornado drill, or they could be more complex, like having to leave the property because of a gas leak. Invite First Responders to observe your exercises and make suggestions for improvement.

Make all of your communications and school safety tools part of your exercises.

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Ensure that staff know their login credentials,

usernames, and passwords, for all relevant software systems. Confirm that staff are aware of how to utilize various equipment such as how to turn it on or off and operate it effectively.

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Send test alerts with your school notification system to confirm all system settings are set up properly.

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If your school notification system is integrated with your school information system (SIS),

be sure staff understand how to send notification from both the SIS interface and the notification system interface. This way, if the SIS software is inaccessible for any reason, users can still send notifications.

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Test all your relevant communications equipment.

to ensure it is working properly, including things like strobe lights, sirens, analog speakers, radio systems, and digital signage. If your school or district utilizes a software program to manage your equipment, ensure all staff are trained and tested on this software as well.

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If your school or district utilizes a panic button solution,

make sure teachers and administrators know how to use it in an emergency.

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If your school or district uses a software application

to schedule, launch, and manage your safety drills, use that application to set up and launch your emergency exercises.

When exercises are conducted, send home a message to the parents letting them know there will be an exercise with First Responders. As part of the exercise, send a test message to all the parents.  Send a message to parents when the exercise is completed. This will reinforce the idea schools and First Responders are working togetherto keep students and staff safe. Using your messaging system for an exercise demonstrates your ability to communicate quickly with parents in a real emergency.

#5: Develop Effective Communication and Messaging Skills

Plan and practice your emergency messages in advance.

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Write out some sample messages

and keep them readily available as saved messages within your notification system’s message library.

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Have message templates on hand

for notifications to use in common situations, like the event of a student death off campus, the passing of a staff member, or a utility issue that necessitates early dismissal.

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Leave open certain details

in your saved messages that can be filled in with the unique event details.

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Whether you choose to use a saved template message

or create a new one in the moment, remember to be concise, be honest, and give the facts.

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When sending a voice message, remember to use an appropriate and fitting tone.

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Ensure your staff knows how to access

saved messages no matter what device they are using – desktop, laptop, or on your notification system’s mobile sender app.

#6: Get Your Message Out!

In an actual emergency, send accurate information as soon as you have it.

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Parents will believe the first message they receive.

Make sure that message is coming from the school as soon as information is available. Parents will be getting information from their students viatext and there is no way to control that. Students only have a partial picture of things and may give erroneous or exaggerated information to their parents.

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Include the news media when you send the notifications

The media may already be initiating contact with students on social media to get partial or incorrect facts. If the media is already broadcasting news about the event, send an official announcement as soon as possible correcting facts and giving detailed information.

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Have a pre-determined site for speaking with the media,

as the media may become part of certain events, and be aware of their deadlines.  Create a schedule to update the media and parents and keep to the schedule.

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Add credibility and comfort to parents

by offering students a message that they can text to their parents to let them know they are safe. Message templates designed especially for the students to send to their parents to save time and ensure a consistent message to all the parents.

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When sending a voice message, remember to use an appropriate and fitting tone.

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Ensure your staff knows how to access

saved messages no matter what device they are using – desktop, laptop, or on your notification system’s mobile sender app.

#7: Keep Parents Safe

Keeping with an “all hazards” approach to school safety, schools should have a reunification plan for bringing students and parents together after a significant event.  Many parents will not want to sit at home while their children are involved in an emergency. However, parents attempting to come to a school during a crisis can prevent first responders from arriving on scenein a timely fashion and will complicate an already difficult situation.

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For safety reasons...

and to allow staff to properly focus on the event, parents should be directed NOT to come to the school or call the school office until further notification in a school emergency. During an actual emergency, many districts set up a phone bank and all calls are routed away from the building to the central office.  All personnel answering the phones are given a script to use when answering questions. This message should be stressedduring school meetings, on the website, in the mobile app, on social media, in emails and newsletters,and in voice messages sent to parents.

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A pre-determined specific location away from the school should be given to parents

permitting them to congregate. This should be somewhere that allows the school to communicate directly with theparents and away from the media.

Creating a reunification plan is not done by a school or district alone, but through a joint venture that includes law enforcement, city officials, mental health departments, the local emergency management association, the Red Cross, and businesses that can support reunification. Work with your local authorities to create a reunification plan that will prepare you for any emergency.

Finally, if you utilize school safety software to manage your emergency response efforts, be sure to test your reunification communications and procedures.

#8: Keep Parents, Staff, Students, and the Media Updated

Send periodic updates and / or a wrap up message if the lockdown event is long or if the school closes for aperiod due to the incident.

#9: Follow Up

If the event was traumatic, advise parents on what to expect on the first day of classes following the incident (for example, if additional law enforcement personnel or counselors will be on hand).

#10: Review and Refine to Perfection

Regularly evaluate your plan and make appropriate modifications as necessary.

For example:

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How are your relationships with local television and news media?

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How can social media impact your crisis communication plan?

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What are the current trends for categorizing an emergency event? Are these items addressed or considered within your crisis communications plan?

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Are staff well prepared, professionally developed or trained?

The extra time taken before an incident ever occurs will pay dividends in keeping students and staff safe during a lockdown or any school safety event.

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