When it comes to emergency and incident response plans, the “it won’t happen here” mentality is no longer an option for schools. CNN reports that 2023 was on pace to see the most school shootings in the U.S. of any year, with 77 such incidents as of Nov. 17—including 50 on K-12 school grounds. Being prepared for a shooting or other emergency is essential for safeguarding the lives of everyone under your care.
The U.S. Department of Education recommends, and most states require, every school to have an emergency operations plan that describes how it will prepare for various crises to ensure the safety of students, staff, and visitors. An incident response plan, which focuses on the response to specific incidents or emergencies, is a core element of any emergency operations plan.
Here are five key steps involved in creating an effective incident response plan for schools.
1. Assemble your emergency response team
In an emergency, people are your most valuable asset. Create an emergency response team that includes administrators, teachers, support staff, and external partners such as law enforcement and medical personnel. Each person’s roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined so that everyone knows what to do in an emergency.
2. Assess the dangers
Begin with a thorough assessment of potential risks and hazards that could impact the school. These include natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes; health-related emergencies such as pandemics; and incidents such as shootings, bomb threats, and chemical spills. Use certified professionals with expertise in this area to undertake a complete risk assessment. Partnering with your local county or city office of emergency management can facilitate this process.
3. Develop your plan
Build your incident response plan based on what you learn from your risk assessment, and make sure it addresses these critical areas:
- Communication plans. Establish clear protocols for how you will notify and communicate with authorities, parents, and the broader community during and after an incident. This might include setting up an emergency notification system and designating spokespeople.
- Evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures. Outline procedures for evacuating the building and safely moving students and staff to designated rally points. Also, provide instructions for situations where sheltering in place is necessary, such as during severe weather or hazardous material spills.
- Lockdown and multi-option security measures. Describe procedures for implementing lockdowns and securing the building during exterior security threats. For interior security threats, such as an active shooter situation, —including procedures on how to evacuate, lockdown and barricade, and use counter in contact with threats.
- Medical response. Describe how medical emergencies will be handled, including first aid procedures, the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs), and coordination with local medical facilities.
- Notification Center. Establish a safe location to begin the immediate recovery process. This includes notifying parents of injured or deceased students, reunification of students with parents or guardians, police interviews, initial mental health services, and medical treatment areas for people who evacuated who were injured.
- Continuity of education. Develop plans for continuing education during and after an emergency. This may include online learning options or temporary relocation of classes. This also includes providing mental health resources for students and staff.
4. Practice your plan
Your work is not done once you have a plan in place. Schedule regular training sessions and emergency drills to ensure that all staff and students are familiar with the response procedures. This helps improve readiness and the effectiveness of your response.
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Make sure your drills include active shooter response training. Empower students and staff with appropriate options-based training designed to help them survive in the face of violence.
5. Review and revise
Periodically review and update your incident response plan to incorporate lessons learned from drills or actual incidents and to address changing risks or circumstances. Schools must serve as safe havens for learning and development, free from potential disruptions and threats.
Having a well-documented incident response plan is vital for schools to respond effectively to emergencies and ensure the safety of everyone on campus—and collaboration with local emergency personnel is essential to coordinate responses and resources in times of crisis.