Do you know the 4R’s of emergency preparedness?
Readiness! Response! Refine! Repeat!
by Kate Pfeifer - The Sandner Group
While your district may have an emergency plan in place, does your district implement the 4Rs?
Readiness – Does your district have a comprehensive emergency plan that is accessible to all students and staff? An emergency plan is worthless if it is incomplete and just sits in a drawer. Finalize and Post it!
Response – Does your district train students and staff about what to do in the event of an emergency? Practice drills will help implement the plan and calm the inevitable panic in the event a real disaster occurs.
Refine - Does your district regularly update and refine the emergency plan through practice and research? Periodically refreshing the plan is crucial, for example, a plan prepared in 1980 is not the plan that your district should use in 2014.
Repeat – Does your district then do it all again annually (or more frequently if the need exists)?
With that said and with the 2014-2015 school year underway, your district needs to conduct a comprehensive review of the natural and un-natural disasters that can impact your schools. The district’s emergency plans then need to be reviewed to ensure that the plans are up-to-date, and address the constantly evolving landscape of school risk. For example, if a building has been re-modeled, the evacuation plans need to be adjusted if the route of egress has been impacted. Likewise, if new security procedures mandate the locking of doors during school hours, the plans need to provide guidance for getting people through the locked doors.
School administrators can assure with just a few simple steps, that the plans are up-to-date, and that everyone is trained in what to do in the event of an emergency. While most districts have considered common risks such as fire, tornadoes and blizzards, the emergency plans must evolve to address “newer” disasters such as mass violence or communicable diseases.
A comprehensive disaster plan should address the following points relating to fire emergencies:
- identify specific evacuation routes from all rooms,
- verify that all exits, fire/smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers are well-marked,
- confirm that all faculty and staff receive fire safety training including how to effectively use a fire extinguisher and participate in fire drills,
- ensure that all fire extinguishers, alarm boxes, exits, and paths to exits are unobstructed at all times, and
- designate a post-evacuation meeting point with instructions for a roll call.
Between 2007 - 2011, the average number of school fires (pre-school through high school) that occurred annually was 4,060. Over 50% occurred during the hours of highest building occupancy - 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. With these statistics in mind, there is no doubt that fire emergency procedures need to be practiced and reviewed annually. Listening to a lecture is not enough. Run the drills and keep a record of dates and participants.
The handling of weather emergencies must also be addressed in your district’s comprehensive disaster plan. Some instructions are applicable to all severe weather situations such as:
- listen to watches/warnings/travel advisories,
- monitor the weather carefully especially if a storm is on the way,
- check the status of battery powered radios, flashlights, back-up lights, power sources, heat, and other supplies, and
- consider closing early if the weather is severe or is predicted to be severe.
Although the extreme weather/tornado season is nearly at an end, such storms can still occur in the fall months. For example, in November of 2013, at least 70 tornadoes were identified in 7 midwestern states.
Some “advanced strategies” to consider in the event of a tornado:
- If the school’s alarm system relies on electricity, have a compressed air horn or megaphone to sound the alert in case of power failure.
- Make special provisions for disabled students and those in portable classrooms. Portable classrooms are like mobile homes—exceptionally dangerous in a tornado.
- Make sure someone knows how to turn off electricity and gas in the event the school is damaged.
- Keep children at school beyond regular hours if threatening weather is expected; and inform parents of this policy. Children are safer in the school rather than a bus or car. Students should not be sent home early if severe weather is approaching, because they may still be out on the roads when it hits.
- Lunches or assemblies in large rooms should be postponed if severe weather is approaching. Gymnasiums, cafeterias, and auditoriums offer no meaningful protection from tornado-strength winds. Also, even if there is no tornado threats, severe thunderstorms can generate winds strong enough to cause major damage.
- Have a NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm tone and battery back-up to receive warnings quickly and directly from your local National Weather Service office. A new technology called WRSAME allows you to set such weather radios to alarm for your local area; so look for the WRSAME feature when purchasing weather radio units.
Although earthquakes are not a hazard we typically think about in the central U.S., the exposure nevertheless exists. Illinois, for example, is at risk from 2 major seismic zones: the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone and the New Madrid Seismic Zone. In fact, the most powerful earthquake to occur in the continental U.S. took place in the New Madrid Seismic Zone during the winter of 1811-1812.
The district’s disaster plan should include recommended courses of action for preparing for or responding to an earthquake such as:
- train students and staff to “drop, cover, hold on”,
- maintain a fully stocked first aid kit,
- establish a post-earthquake protocol that includes checking for injuries, rendering first aid, assessing utilities, seeking updates with a battery powered radio, and providing lighting with flashlights,
- avoid the use of candles, matches, or lighters because these items can cause an explosion in the event of a gas leak, and
- be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours.
The district’s disaster plan should include a set of practices to address medical emergencies and non-emergencies including the following:
- confirm all staff is certified in first aid and CPR for infants and children because in the event of a serious injury, staff may need to administer basic first aid until emergency services arrive,
- train staff to recognize signs and symptoms requiring immediate action as opposed to those that are not emergencies. Symptoms such as semi-consciousness, breathing difficulties, severe bleeding, or hives that appear quickly all indicate a need for immediate medical attention, and
- instruct staff about when to call an ambulance and when to notify a child’s parent/guardian.
Your district also needs to consider how to respond to situations involving the risk of the spread of communicable diseases. Issues to address include:
- education of staff about diseases, conditions and symptoms,
- notification of the proper authorities and parents/guardians,
- isolation and evacuation of individuals who are ill or have been exposed, and
- other containment procedures.
Your district’s disaster plan should also address how to respond to violent crimes such as hostage situations, gun fire and bomb threats. Instructions should include how to:
- decide whether to lock/barricade students into a room or to evacuate,
- keep students calm,
- communicate with the aggressor if necessary,
- contain students until evacuation is possible or help arrives, and
- notify authorities and administration.
There is no such thing as being over-prepared for an emergency. Although this article is not an exhaustive discussion and each district should consider its unique risks and circumstances, the tips discussed herein are a good starting point for creation of an emergency plan or for updating an existing plan. Additionally, your district should make use of available resources such as the Illinois Emergency Management website which is a valuable tool in keeping current with recommended practices for use in the event of an emergency (See www.state.il.us/iema). Consulting with experts and specialists is also highly recommended.
Being prepared for emergencies will help start your school year on a confident and positive note. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact your Loss Control Specialists listed at the right.