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How to Develop a Comprehensive School Emergency Operations Plan

Is your school prepared to address potential emergencies? Through this interview with Bill Titley, law enforcement officer and former school resource officer, you’ll discover why an emergency preparedness plan is crucial and what to consider when building your school’s plans.

Background and experience

Question: Can you provide some details on your professional background, including any relevant experience?

Answer: I’ve been in law enforcement for 27 years. Throughout my career, I served as a school resource officer for about 12 years and have been on our agency’s tactical team for 17 years. I’m also a co-author of the State of Ohio’s active threat response course, and I teach crisis management for school-based incidents through the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium at the University of Findlay.

In addition to my professional experience, I’m a dad of four who takes school safety very seriously.

Types of emergencies schools should plan for

Question: Which types of emergencies should schools be prepared to address through their emergency preparedness plans?

Answer: Schools need to take an “all-hazards” approach when crafting an emergency operations plan (EOP). Though active shooter events are by far the most heavily publicized of the school emergencies, medical and weather emergencies, as well as non-custodial parent issues, are far more likely to occur.

An “all-hazards” approach doesn’t necessarily mean a school needs to prepare for every little incident that could happen, though. By planning and training on specific responses to generalized hazards, schools are able to adapt to a very wide variety of hazards.

Types of assessments a school should complete

Question: Which types of assessments should a school complete before building an emergency preparedness plan?

Answer: Schools should complete several types of assessments to ensure a comprehensive response during an emergency situation. These include:

  • The Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) and Stakeholder Preparedness Report (SPR): A risk assessment process that helps answer which threats and hazards could affect a community and how prepared the community is to respond.
  • Site Survey and Vulnerability Assessment: This assessment provides school officials a strong understanding of potential vulnerabilities in their facilities and/or procedures.
  • Climate Surveys: An assessment that provides comprehensive insights into how students, parents and staff perceive the safety and culture of the school.

By performing these assessments before building out an emergency preparedness plan, schools will be more equipped to identify and analyze potentially dangerous situations. Each facility is different and has its own unique landscapes, climate concerns and potential threats that need to be addressed to create a comprehensive plan. Omitting this step could result in putting students, parents and staff at risk.

Stakeholders for school emergency preparedness planning

Question: Who should be included in emergency preparedness planning for a school? How do schools and districts work together during planning?

Answer: Any EOP is only as good as the insight and information that goes into it; this insight needs to come from multiple stakeholders, not just one or two people.

Schools should consider including:

  • School administrators
  • Teachers
  • Counselors
  • Maintenance staff
  • School resource officers
  • Fire personnel

These stakeholders should not just be consulted, though; they need to be heavily involved in every step of developing the EOP. Make sure they are continually a part of the process and that you’re consistently getting their input to support a comprehensive plan.

Additionally, your school should consider working with other districts. For example, our local district has collaborated with other districts within our county so that our EOPs closely mimic each other. This allows for more streamlined mutual assistance should a large-scale event happen that requires assistance from other districts.

Critical aspects of a school emergency operations plan

Question: What are the most critical aspects of a school emergency preparedness plan?

Answer: There are several critical aspects of an EOP that must be adhered to if it’s going to be as effective as possible.

First, every plan should be tailored to each specific school. One plan can be excellent for “School A” but not be effective at all for “School B.” Each school will have specific needs, and a “one-size-fits-all” plan approach will not be successful.

Second, the procedures outlined in an EOP should be what is actually done within the school should the need arise. If the plan is not aligning with the actual execution, then the EOP needs to be changed—or the actions within the school need to be changed. Either way, the plan and the actions taken need to fully align.

Third, the EOP should be written by a group of stakeholders with varying professional competencies. One well-meaning administrator or school resource officer should not be the sole author; rather, inclusion of other stakeholders—like fire and maintenance personnel—is of the utmost importance when developing the EOP.

Lastly, who you task specific assignments to should not just be based upon the person’s role within the school. You need to also take into consideration a person’s competency in a high-stress situation. A person’s job title does not necessarily mean they will be able to properly function during an emergency; pay attention to more than the job title.

Educating and training students

Question: What is the process for educating and training students on the actions to take during an emergency?

Answer: Students should be taught the parts of the EOP that directly relate to actions they must take, including items like:

  • Where to evacuate
  • How to lockdown the area in which they are
  • How sound to an alarm (and why)
  • General first aid

The key, though, is training students on the above without unnecessarily frightening them. Find a strong balance of educating while not overwhelming, which can partly stem from just helping students understand the “why” behind what they are learning.

Educating parents and guardians

Question: Do considerations need to be made for educating parents and guardians on the school’s emergency action plan?

Answer: There should definitely be considerations made for not just parents and guardians but really the community as a whole. These individuals should know that the district has worked together with multiple disciplines to craft a comprehensive EOP that covers all hazards and keeps their children as safe as possible without sacrificing their education.

Parents and guardians do need to made aware what they need to do in the event of a school emergency. It should be explained that even if parents and guardians are being asked to stand back, by following these guidelines, they are helping keep their children safer.

EOP plan review and adjustments frequency

Question: How frequently should a school’s emergency preparedness plan be reviewed and trained on?

Answer: Reviewing and updating an EOP should be an annual occurrence, and it typically makes sense to complete this work over the summer. Every school and district should take the time to analyze their current EOP and ensure it aligns with existing needs. This analysis is crucial, as not prioritizing this review can lead to outdated plans that won’t support the safety of students and staff.

Additionally, the EOP should be evaluated and adjusted any time a substantial change occurs, either in relation to the physical facilities, like gaining or losing an outside resource, or within the procedures of the school, like a bussing reroute or arrival/dismissal time change.

Any time a review and update are completed, though, the school board should be briefed on any revisions and should sign off on the new plan. This helps ensure key stakeholders are kept updated on the latest plan protocols.

In terms of training, drills should be conducted at the school level multiple times per year and include a variety of training types, including evacuations, lockdowns and weather emergencies. Once per year, schools should complete tabletop exercises and full-scale event exercises—including reunification—with district personnel and first responders. Representatives from most agencies and districts who would respond to a large-scale incident should be included in such exercises.

StrataSite emergency preparedness planning tool

Question: What is the benefit of a tool like StrataSite™ for developing, deploying and training on a plan? Does this tool help improve collaboration and overall plan execution?

Answer: StrataSite™ offers multiple templates, each of which help school districts (or businesses and even whole communities!) become more prepared for and respond to a host of threats and hazards.

These templates include:

  • Active threat
  • Hazard mitigation
  • Public event planning
  • Pandemic management planning
  • Response options

Each template has several key features that set it apart from other “crisis plan” programs:

  • Stakeholders can easily and remotely collaborate during the planning and writing phases.
  • Different user groups can be readily set up depending on role assignment within the plan.
  • Supplemental resources—such as floor plans and utility shutoffs—can be uploaded and attached to any template.
  • Secure electronic distribution of the plan—in its entirety or on an as needed basis—is easy and protected by two-factor authentication.
  • Online review and testing of each template can be utilized to ensure staff are competent in concepts and practices established in the EOP.

Ultimately, StrataSite gives us a better way to prepare for a range of emergencies that schools may face; it helps ensure schools are as prepared as they can be should the need arise.

Discover the StrataSite™ Difference

By investing in a collaborative, easy-to-update preparedness tool, you can continually adapt and evolve your school’s plan to meet any changes or new needs.

Sign up for your free, no-obligation trial of StrataSite today.

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- Sheriff Michael E. Heldman | Hancock County, Ohio

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