Surprisingly, many rural and remote communities that have child-based school facilities are not often public about their emergency and preparedness planning programs. This is likely due to various reasons: (1) the plan is very basic and not often seen as something that will ever be needed (3) the school system might assume the community, county or state has already planned for them and that they are in good hands or (3) the school has simply not planned for extreme emergencies and disastrous incidents. If your local school system is experiencing any of the three issues above, then you need to understand that something is deeply wrong here.

We send our children to schools to learn and be looked after while we work to keep them fed and housed. We expect schools to be able to take care of our kids and assume they know what they are doing if a major incident ever occurs. Federal and state laws have been created to require schools to protect their students and staff. In the end, school systems are responsible for protecting their students and their staff members at all times. However, often the case in rural areas, major emergencies and incidents don’t often occur where school systems are involved. Therefore, planning isn’t always the main objective because people use the comfort myth of knowing that “nothing big will ever happen here” and that is not good. Sandy Hook… The 2013 tornado of Moore, OK… Columbine… These incidents have occurred in history and they have always had chaotic and shocking results. Could they have been prevented through proper emergency planning techniques? Yes, they could have. Now we use these tragedies and many more as lessons to be learned, unfortunately.

 

School Disaster Incidents happen when we least expect it…

For school administrators, officials, parents and students in many rural and remote communities all across the country, disaster at their school is simply not on their minds. In many of these schools, disaster has never or rarely happens enough to warrant a full-scale panic and continuity planning program. When people and entities are not used to experiencing a disaster, they will not think about it actually happened as much. Why plan for something that is “likely” never to happen at our school? I’m sure the people of Columbine thought the same thing before the shootings had occurred. Often times, we cannot simply mark our calendars for when a disaster occurs – they happen when we least expect it and often when we are not prepared for them. Planning and exercising before the disaster occurs will allow a school system to gain experience and be ready for incidents without such activities having to happen in the first place. Is being ready such a bad idea after all?

 

Learn the ABCs of EOPs

Emergency Operations Planning (EOP) is an essential program adopted by many communities and organizations for developing resilient and effective planning programs that are designed to assist in the preparedness of major emergencies and extreme incidents. Schools in rural and remote areas should have their own EOP. Relying on a community EOP, state EOP or other external EOP is not enough, not for a learning facility that deals with the safety and stability of the children of this great country. We owe it to our kids to prepare them for the future of hazardous times and the protection of their lives during such troubling times. In order to integrate preparedness into a school system, the school develop an EOP concentrating on the following emergency management phases:

  1. Prevention
  2. Protection
  3. Mitigation
  4. Response
  5. Recovery

 

Prevention is the act of avoiding, preventing and stopping acts of terrorism. After 9/11 and attacks that have followed that tragic day, the idea of terrorism impacting a school system is no longer an outrageous idea. Terrorists attack in ways that will attempt to shock the nation and make people live in complete panic. Imagine the shock and panic that would occur if a school was victim to the attack of a terrorist entity. The aftermath would be devastating. Protection is similar to prevention as it involved terrorism but it also includes natural disaster events as well. Protection is the act of protecting and securing people and places from acts of terrorism and the hazardous effects of natural disasters. Mitigation is the process of reducing the loss of life and property damage that occurs during an incident by lessening the impact of such incidents. Many mitigation efforts include methods such as engineering changes, retrofitting buildings and hazard controls and acquiring equipment used to lessen the impact of hazardous activities such as getting sandbags for a flooding event. Response is the method of saving lives, protecting property and preserving the environment during an incident and during hazardous conditions. School systems must adopt the standard of when it comes to the act of responding to a major incident. That standard being that lifesaving efforts must be the first and foremost priority before stabilizing the scene and then protecting property from further damage. And finally, recovery is the process of returning the school and its functions to normalcy after an incident has occurred. During recovery, it is important to recognize the various forms of recovery that will be required. The academic functions isn’t the only recovery method – general business administration as well as emotional recovery will also be required among those who were involved. Recovery will impact everyone including those within the community surrounding the incident.

 

The Protection and Prevention Phases

The protection and prevention phases of an emergency operations plan for a school or school system should concentrate on what it was originally created for – terrorism. Terrorism needs its very own special phase because it is a special kind of threat. Schools of all the many types of critical infrastructures should be taking terrorism seriously, no matter if a school is rural or within a more urban environment. Terrorists often hit us where we least expect it and where it will deliver those most shock value. If a school was to be attacked during an act of terrorism – it could cripple our sense of national preparedness as a whole. This is why the protection phase of the school EOP is so important. Now there are various tactics that can be taken to improve protection methodologies around a school but we must remember to refrain from being intrusive as much as we can. Some of the following tactics should be practiced by schools engaging in protection aspects of their EOP:

  • Planning for acts of terrorism – the before, during and after steps and overall ways to protect the school from terrorist activities from the start
  • Creating a system for internal and external stakeholder information and warning before, during and after a potential terrorist act has taken place
  • Deciding on a proper operational coordination method. Who will be in charge? What agencies will be involved? Who should the school contact in the event of potential terrorism?
  • Seeking paths to learn about the latest threats to the area. It is critical to rely on intelligence sharing capabilities that are available to the educational system in America
  • Selecting valuable ways to disrupt acts of terrorism before it starts and ways to disrupt and control the acts of terrorism after they have started as well
  • Creating methods of screening, detecting and searching for aspects of terrorism. If you see something, say something and notify authorities of anything that looks out of the ordinary or suspicious in nature

 

The Mitigation Phase

Mitigation is an important phase because it will allow a school to take protective actions that will essentially reduce the loss of life and property damage by lessening the impacts of a hazard whether by terrorism, man-made or natural hazardous incidents. Besides the recovery aspects of a disaster, mitigation is often a more expensive phase of emergency management. This is where educational grant programs and funding from federal and state sources will need to be tapped into. Mitigation often involves the process of “fixing” something or “improving” something to promote resilience and safety if that something was to become the forerunner of what is being attacked and/or damaged during a major incident. The following mitigation actions might be made for a school practicing this phase:

  • Proper planning for reducing the loss of life and property should be done. Planning is going to be the most critical step in all phases having to do with emergency management and continuity
  • Aiding in making the community resilient as a whole. The community that surrounds the school will impact the stability of the school if it is or is not prepared for natural, man-made and technological hazards
  • Long-term and short-term vulnerability reductions should be made. This could include something like retrofitting a roof to withstand heavy snow to something as simple as securing heavy objects to the wall that might fall during an earthquake
  • Identification of risks, hazards and threats that the school and the community as a whole is facing. It is important to know what we are up against before we can plan for these events

 

The Response Phase

The response phase of a school-related incident will be most critical to lifesaving efforts. There are three core functions of a response action. These functions include lifesaving efforts, stabilizing the scene and protecting property and the environment. Lifesaving efforts of all things should always be the main and first priority at all times. It is critical to save lives of those impacted by a disaster. After immediate needs for lifesaving efforts have been made, stabilizing the scene to make it safe for those involved in the response will be required. After that, efforts to further protect the school property and preserve the environment should be completed. Nothing should ever come before lifesaving efforts especially involving children. Below are some of the most important topics you will need to plan for during a response operation:

  • Planning
  • Public information and warning
  • Incident management and coordination
  • Critical transportation
  • Environmental, health and safety response
  • Fatality management services
  • Fire suppression
  • Logistics and supply chain
  • Mass care and search and rescue operations
  • On-scene security and law enforcement
  • Communications
  • Public health and medical services
  • Assessing the situation and keeping everyone thoroughly informed

 

The Recovery Phase

Recovery as stated above can be the kicker for how much money has to be spent in order to return the school to normalcy. We take a look at the incident that occurred at Sandy Hook. Their recovery solution was to tear down the existing school where the incident took place and build a new school. The house of the shooter was also demolished. One could imagine the expense that followed this solution but it was what the community felt was necessary to help with their coping and recovery process. When it comes to the recovery phase, we must understand that there are several aspects that will require recovery, especially involving a school, they include:

  • Academic Recovery – Beginning the process of educating students and returning to normal school functions and recreational events
  • Business Recovery – Returning the business aspects and filing/accounting systems back to normal
  • Physical Recovery – Building new facilities and repairing rooms and buildings that require it after an incident has taken place
  • Emotional Recovery – The mental state of the staff, students and responders involved will need recovery and the community surrounding the school will also be impacted by the incident

 

There are three types of disasters

Schools will face three different types of disaster that the country also faces as a whole. These three types of disaster include natural disasters, man-made disasters and technological disasters. Natural Disasters are the type of disasters that just occur naturally. Tornadoes, earthquakes, flooding and droughts are all forms of natural disasters. They happen naturally and there isn’t much in terms of preventing them from happening in the first place. Man-Made Disasters are they kind of disasters where a hazardous act was intended. Man-made disasters include terrorism, cyber terrorism, bullying epidemics, active shooters and sabotage. These types of disasters can be prevented through preparedness, proper planning and academic resiliency. Technological Disasters are the kind of disasters that are considered accidents. This might include transportation and rail accidents, nuclear facility emergencies and defective equipment and building processes that fail to do what they were intended to do. Mitigation and preparedness efforts are often made to prevent accidental technological disasters from happening in the first place. All three types of disasters can occur within a school district and impact learning facilities and all three of these types should be addressed in the school EOP.

 

Why plan tomorrow when you can plan today, instead?

If you haven’t yet made your school’s plan for disaster management and preparedness, then you are placing the school a step behind modern society and its resiliency against disasters. It isn’t efficient for the Whole Community approach to preparedness and it isn’t responsible for students, parents, school officials and the community as a whole if the school doesn’t have its own plan created for dealing with incidents. Schools are responsible for keeping their students and staff safe at all times. The community, parents and even the media expect a school to be able to keep their stakeholders safe at all times. And we must remember that laws have been made to enforce schools to take protective actions in regards of protecting students and staff from the impacts of disastrous incidents.

There are much benefits in terms of emergency planning for a school in a rural and/or remote environment. One particular benefit is that it takes pressure off the already overwhelmed community to not have to worry as much about preparing the school for a major emergency. In rural areas where resources, expertise and personnel is limited, more entities including school districts need to be sharing the responsibility of local preparedness. We call this Whole Community which is a national approach to national preparedness. Everyone plays a part in emergency management; no one is exempt from it. Another benefit is that by having a plan for the school, it encouraging parents to also have a plan at home especially if the school’s plan is marketed to integrate with home and community plans as well. All plans should easily be able to integrate with one and other – remember, WHOLE COMMUNITY! School staff also play an important role before, during and after a disaster but many of the staff may not truly understand their roles unless they are defined in an emergency operations plan. Lastly, a school planning for emergencies will be able to identify that hazards that actually threaten the school in the first place. Knowing what may come is better than not knowing what may come in terms of hazards and threats.

A simple emergency operations plan will cover three main elements for the school. The first element is steps that should be taken for each phase of the emergency situations that have been identified. Remember the phases of prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery. The second element is what should be done before, during and after a disaster and what roles and responsibilities will be expected out of school staff, parents, students and the community as a whole. The third element will explain what should not be done and how negative impacts will be handled. We have to make sure that we are not doing things that will only create further hazards or cause a domino effect of continuous disaster-types situations. It is suggested to contact your local emergency management office and ask to see their EOP to get an understanding of how the plan should be structured. Local emergency management officials can also assist a school is most of the process of developing the plan.

 

The School EOP Planning Process

Planning for school emergencies isn’t an easy process and should never be the task of just one person in charge of school incident management operations. Planning should be done by a team of dedicated persons who can each contribute something important to the planning process. Look to those who can be the subject matter experts of your emergency operations plan. This would include school officials and teachers, parents of students, local emergency responders, local and county emergency management officials, power and water company officials and administrators of surrounding critical infrastructure and businesses in the local area. Each individual that is a part of the planning team can help strengthen the school’s overall EOP.

Before the EOP can be developed, it is important that the planning team identifies the current and potential hazards and threats that are facing their school. This can be done using the principles and methods described in THIRA or Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment program provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Using THIRA allows the school’s planning team to identify threats and hazards, assess and measure risk and assign capability targets to the items that have been identified. After these threats, hazards and risks have been identified, it will be a good idea to spend a good amount of time in researching and understanding them to find solutions on how the school will prepared for them. This phase of the planning program should be done by the planning committee as a team.

Finally, the plan should be written and reviewed, approved and maintained when needed. It is important that everyone on the team has read the plan and truly understands it before it can be approved and formerly introduced to everyone involved. When the plan is approved, it should never be held in secret. The age of ‘need to know’ is no longer appropriate for the world we now live in, especially with the threat of terrorism where information must be shared in order to effectively prevent it from happening. School officials, parents, the community – really, everyone should have access to the school EOP if they want to see it. Maintaining the plan is also critical especially as the years pass and change management occurs within the school. If a new facility is built for example, the plan needs to be updated around the new facility. An unmaintained plan is a plan that will quickly become obsolete.

 

Experience – Train to Gain

Experience is everything when it comes to true success of managing incidents during extreme emergencies. Without experience, the results of an incident will likely end with chaos, confusion and panic from those involved and those witnessing the event. Learning from our mistakes is an important feature of emergency management but we cannot simply rely on mistakes to be made in order to gain experience through incident management. Instead, we must train and exercise for incidents to occur. Training and exercises allows us the gain much needed experience without actually having to experience a real-life emergency. With proper training and exercise, we can ensure that if and when an actual incident occurs, we are experienced in handling it and that alone will increase our chances of success before, during and after an incident has occurred.

There are many different types of training and exercise classifications for incident management. Some of them will require spending while others will not require as much spending. It is important that schools choose at least a few different forms of training and exercise to gain as much experience as they can. The cheaper route is performing discussion-based exercises. Discussion-based exercises are training programs that incorporate discussion as the main aspect of exercising. Seminars, workshops, table-top exercises and games are all forms of discussion-based exercises. The more technical types of exercises are operations-based exercises which often result in the requirement of spending money. These exercise types include drills, functional exercises and full-scale events. If your school considers a full-scale event type of exercise, asking for support from local first responders could help lessen the requirement of spending a lot of money on the event. Rural schooling isn’t always funded the way it should be, therefore, we have to integrate innovation into our training events in order to make the successful in the end.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article about developing an emergency operations plan or EOP for a school in rural and remote community environments. I hope this article has helped you. This article is over 3,000 words long and took about a week to write – please support me for writing this article by sharing it with others and especially on your favorite social media websites. Please feel free to comment on this article with constructive information that will assist rural schools in their emergency planning efforts. Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and resources by subscribing to my monthly newsletter on the homepage towards the bottom of the screen.

About the Author

Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn J. GossmanB.S., M.S., M.B.A., SEM, PDS
Shawn J. Gossman is an article and publication contributor of rural and remote-based emergency management, continuity and public health topics. Shawn holds a Master of Science concentrating in Emergency Management and a MBA in Hazardous Environment Logistics and Supply Chain Management. Shawn is dedicated to helping rural communities and organizations be a part of the Whole Community approach of National Preparedness.