Are You Really Prepared? Campus Safety and Emergency Crisis Planning
Are You Really Prepared? Campus Safety and Emergency Crisis Planning
Posted by John Dougan
By John Dougan, senior risk control specialist, Adventist Risk Management
October 2, 2006, what began like any other day in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, did not end like any before or hopefully ever again for the residents of that quiet community after a lone gunman killed five girls, aged 7 – 13, before turning the gun on himself. Five other schoolgirls were injured.
The Pennsylvania tragedy marked the third school shooting in the United States in less than a week, following incidents at Platte Canyon High School in Colorado, where six female students were taken hostage and some sexually assaulted by a lone male who shot and killed one before committing suicide; and Weston High School in Wisconsin where the school principal died of wounds received as he attempted to subdue an armed freshman student. Months later, a lone gunman would wreak havoc on the campus of Virginia Tech, killing 27 students and five faculty, before turning a gun on himself.
Are You Really Prepared?
When we think of campus safety from an emergency preparedness perspective, some of the first thoughts that come to mind are fire and probably the most prevalent natural hazard for our location: earthquake, tornado, hurricane, etc. It is crucial, however, that we don’t stop there. A total risk control and risk management program must consider all potential exposures to campus safety and possible disruption of school operations, and must plan appropriately for them.
Are you prepared to take on an event as horrific and devastating as that which struck a peaceful little Amish school or bustling Virginia Tech, or even a single assault or death on your campus? Are you ready should your campus be affected by a train derailment, tanker truck crash or chemical plant disaster that results in the release of deadly gases or chemicals that require evacuation or “sheltering in place?”
Are you ready if your campus is affected by a pandemic flu outbreak that could tax your human and financial resources beyond the imagination? Are you prepared for an “in house” chemical release, spill and contamination, or a tragic suicide, medical emergency, transportation accident or fire?
As you look at your overall program, have you analyzed your assets and potential hazards and determined your vulnerabilities? Have you worked with local authorities in developing a comprehensive emergency crisis preparedness plan? Have you held tabletop exercises and actual drills? Have you put measures in place that will have your school up and operating following a disaster, even if you lose use of a building or possibly the whole campus for an extended period of time?
Putting the Pieces Together
While it is impossible to avert every disaster or loss that could potentially occur at a school, measures must be taken to
- Identify exposures the school could face
- Prevent occurrences, where possible
- Establish emergency crisis preparedness plans that provide the appropriate response to an event to reduce the impact and hasten recovery
- Train teachers and staff regarding their responsibilities in the event of an occurrence;
- Hold appropriate table top and actual drills to help ensure proper response by all parties;
- Analyze drills and make the necessary corrections to the response plan and staff responsibilities.
It may be easy to develop a fire evacuation plan and carry out routine drills, a total plan encompassing all recognized exposures requires review and input from a knowledgeable team that can evaluate the risks and establish appropriate response plans with input from local authorities. The crisis management team will ultimately be tasked with establishing protocols and priorities that address:
- Protection of Human Life
- Support of Health and Safety Operations
- Protection of Assets
- Maintenance of Operations
- Assessment of Damages
- Restoration of General Campus Operations
Develop a Plan
Once the team is in place, break down the development of the Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness Program into small, manageable bites. We can do this by first making a list of potential exposures and prioritizing them with those most likely to occur at the top, followed by those with less likelihood of an occurrence. While fire and natural hazards might top the list, the degree to which an activity occurs might affect the likelihood of a loss.
Fire can originate on campus or can come from an external source. Internal sources might be malfunctioning heating or electrical equipment, a laboratory fire, cafeteria or kitchen fires, unauthorized candle use in dormitories or other areas, arson or other suspicious activity and by other means.
External sources may also be of concern to a campus. Schools located in forested sites or near areas of heavy grass face the potential of forest or grass fires and the need to evacuate. Businesses or residences bordering the campus may also expose the campus to potential fires, with factors like type of business and age and composition of structures influencing the risk. Old wooden structures and facilities with a large use of flammable chemicals can be of concern.
Most facilities have one or more natural elements that can be a recipe for disaster if preparations are not made and drills are not practiced in regard to the applicable exposures. Some locations are faced with earthquakes, while others have tornadoes, hailstorms, hurricanes, high winds, and floods, snow and ice storms. Many of these can lead to extensive power outages, the loss of transportation arteries, and buildings that are no longer habitable. Communication and transportation can come to a standstill and facilities may need to have supplies to “shelter in place” for and extended period of time. Supplies of food, fuel and other materials may run short. Refrigerated foods in stock may spoil.
Chemical Spills and Hazardous Materials
As with fire, exposures to chemical spills and hazardous materials can be internal or from off-site, external sources. On campus, school laboratories are stocked with a myriad of chemicals, some of which can bring large contamination problems with seemingly small spills. Mercury contamination at Ballou School in the District of Columbia resulted in the school’s closure for 35 days. Emergency Management and the District Department of Health established a command center near the school and mercury was traced through school classrooms, the gymnasium and hallways, to streets, school buses and public transportation, to 200 private homes, all of which had to be tested.
When testing proved positive, decontamination was necessary. Cleanup from the 2003 spill took one month and cost the school system $956,000. Further west in Illinois, a student stole a significant amount of mercury from a chemical storage room, spilled some in classrooms, hallways and on lockers. Portions of the school were closed for approximately two weeks and cleanup costs exceeded $250,000.
Exposures from outside sources like refineries and other industries, laboratories or services may also pose a threat. Around the world, explosions, leaks and spills from these types of facilities have affected large communities as winds carried contaminants for miles. The possibility of train derailments and tanker accidents on highways can create additional exposures.
Emergency planning should also consider the possibility of loss of or damage to utilities. Power can be lost due to storms, accidents and transformer failure, or even a “brown out” caused by electrical overuse during peak demand periods. Downed power lines from accidents, powerful winds or the weight of ice can also present dangerous conditions, and ruptured or leaking gas lines are a possibility, especially following an earthquake or other catastrophe.
While utility emergencies can also result in fire, explosion, property damage and injuries to staff and students, the loss of one or more utilities can affect “continuity of operations.” Which utility is lost will determine how great the overall affect. Loss of electricity means loss of lights and the use of equipment, including emergency apparatus, unless battery backup is available. It could mean loss of heat, and for a kitchen it might also mean food spoilage. Even the loss of water can have a major affect, as sanitary facilities will no longer be available.
Violence on campus can result from internal or external sources. It can generate from staff or students, or be committed by individuals or groups of individuals that do not even belong on campus. Their actions may result in a single act of violence, gang hostilities, a kidnapping or hostage situation, sexual assault or other hostilities.
Plans need to address how to recognize the potential for violence in a student or others, development of communications between staff and students that encourage reporting strange behavior or threatening comments and how to report, and how to respond if an incident does occur. Some violent actions are listed in the following paragraphs.
Bomb threats are delivered in a variety of ways, including letters, face-to-face, email, on a student’s website, or even gestures; however, the most common means used is by telephone. While 90 percent of bomb threats are hoaxes, they must be taken seriously (see U.S. department of Justice, Bomb Threats in Schools, at http://www.cops.usdoj.gov). The potential for serious injuries and damage increases the seriousness of the situation. Whether real or not, there must be an initial assumption that a real bomb exists, even though the disruption caused by the bomb threat can be considerable. Ultimately, the response plan must be prepared to immediately assess the seriousness of the threat and follow established, appropriate protocols.
Weapons on Campus
To date, reports of incidents regarding weapons in Adventist Schools have been minimal. Most have generally involved the use or presence of knives, but there are a couple of incidents that involved guns here in North America, and at other locations around the world. Many of the same factors that have caused shootings or other violent acts in other schools exist in ours. Such incidents in the past have followed periods of “bullying” or “teasing” by other students, breakup of teen relationships, depression, anger following disciplinary action, employee firings and other causes. Gun policies must be in affect, along with a broad awareness of the causes of gun or other violent incidents and programs that prohibit bullying and harassment of students by other students
Are You Ready?
Crisis planning in your school is no easy task. It is an ongoing, never-ending project of the administration, crisis management team, and others. Done well, it can reduce injuries and losses and reduce downtime following a crisis; it can also present a positive image to staff, students, parents/families and the community as well. Done poorly, it will lead to additional crises you do not even want to think about.
Plan well, and do not assume. To paraphrase words by Bruce Blythe, CEO of Crisis Management International, Inc., in his article Virginia Tech Shootings: Crisis Magnifies the Significance of Small Weakness, if we are going to assume anything ever, anywhere, we should assume the worst, respond accordingly and pray for the best.
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