Natural disasters drive need to update K12 emergency plans
More frequent and intense natural disasters require school and district leadership to make plans to address trauma, harden school buildings and resume school routines as quickly as possible after a calamitous event.
To safeguard education communities from the effects of events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, a district administrator may need to tap an employee or new hire who’s passionate about emergency management, says Shawn Streeter, a safe environment specialist for Poudre School District in northern Colorado.
“You must have a driver,” Streeter says. “Crisis plans are multitechnical writing materials. It’s easy to put them on the back burner when you have the day-to-day life of educating kids going on.”
When devising emergency and recovery plans, administrators first have to consider the age of school buildings. Older structures have unreinforced masonry or a lighter frame construction, making them vulnerable to collapse.
Natural disasters can be classified as “low-probability, high-consequence” events because they can happen on “any given day” and cause major destruction, says Lori Peek, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center. Prevention and recovery plans should include:
- Regular emergency drills: Conducted at least once at the beginning of the school year and once before spring, drills should identify shelter-in-place locations, such as a safe room or other refuge areas. In the event of an evacuation, everyone should be informed of safe routes, Peek says.
- Safety education: Conduct preparedness campaigns, special events, classes, social media discussions and other engagements to build a school and community culture of safety and to achieve buy-in for preparedness and response plans before a disaster strikes.
- Emergency kits: Take inventory of emergency medical supplies, including AEDs, and identify staff with relevant training or experience in first aid, CPR, search and rescue, and mental health care or counseling to understand what resources are available.
Administrators should also create community communication protocols for a natural disaster, and develop plans for taking in students from neighboring districts.
In addition, leaders should know where they can get funds to fortify or retrofit school buildings, says Peek, who also served on the committee that wrote “Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety,” a Federal Emergency Management Agency report.
Poudre’s administrators work with city and county emergency management offices, the mental health department and local first responders to develop technical aspects of the district’s crisis plan, Streeter says.
They also tapped the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for information to determine which areas of the district faced the greatest weather dangers. Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools, a federal guide, was used as a template for forming incident response teams, identifying threats and hazards across the district’s region, and developing protocols for training staff and conducting periodic drills, Streeter says.
For instance, FEMA advises each school site to form teams, including a first aid/medical team, security and utilities team, and a fire suppression and hazmat team, and to assign individuals or groups to handle communications, documentation, administration and accounting. Staff members assigned to these various elements can report to an incident commander. Individuals filling these roles can serve during the response and throughout the recovery period.
Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017 led Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen to designate some schools as evacuation checkpoints and staging sites for first responders. School buses were used to deliver food and supplies.
Having foresight certainly helps, but real-time circumstances may warrant a different response, so flexibility during a crisis is key, she says. “All aspects of school safety, including weather, are based on what you learn has worked and what hasn’t worked,” Fagen says. “You have your plans in place and hope that you never need them, but in the event something does happen, at least you’re not starting from scratch.”
Schools as shelters
If a school is used as a temporary evacuation shelter, consider these actions:
- Plan ahead of time with key stakeholders on how the building will be operated and managed during an emergency.
- Check with local emergency managers or shelter providers to determine how local schools can be included in recovery plans for the community.
- Negotiate formal agreements with shelter providers to address the transformation of school facilities into emergency temporary housing and how to handle liability for damages, including cleanup and how such expenses will be managed.
- Establish a memorandum of understanding that specifies how school resources will be used during a crisis event.
• Keep in mind that if a school is turned into a shelter, it can delay students’ return to the classroom, which can lead to other problems, namely getting kids back to a normal routine—a key driver of recovery.
- Develop an educational continuity plan in the event that schooling is resumed elsewhere.
Preparing for disaster
Lori Peek, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center, helped write “Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety,” a Federal Emergency Management Agency report. She suggests these first steps.
Know the district’s risk
“Know your risk so you can take necessary protective action,” Peek says. Forty-two states have a high seismic danger, while every state faces potential flooding and wind hazards, she says.
Hundreds of schools are made of unreinforced masonry construction, and can be badly damaged or collapse in an earthquake, Peek says. Moreover, many schools throughout Tornado Alley do not have storm shelters or safe rooms, placing children at incredible risk if a tornado hits. “This is why knowing your risk is so important,” she says.
Build an emergency response coalition
Consider partnering with local nonprofits, such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, in addition to elected officials. Having a diverse team of stakeholders can create a more effective natural disaster response and rehabilitation as schools likely interact with members of the community during an event. Also, connect with the press to report the right information to the public immediately after a disaster, Peek says.
“Taking action to mitigate risks is not something one person or one entity can do alone,” Peek says.
This group can also research what state or federal funding is available for renovations or disaster relief, she says.
Craft an emergency management plan
School administrators must be able to communicate regularly with stakeholders about hazards, risks and emergency plans. Reach out to the state’s hazard mitigation officer, who is trained in emergency management and can help. “After flooding hit Louisiana in 2015 and 2016, a lot of schools there found out about the mitigation funding,” Peek says. “If you put mitigation plans in place as part of your recovery efforts, you can get supplemental funds for your district.”
“Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety,” Federal Emergency Management Agency
Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Natural Hazard Center