Establishing a crisis management plan may seem overwhelming to school officials unsure of where to start. That’s why we broke the process down into manageable steps designed to help them take action.
We’ve divided the steps into the four phases of crisis management: Mitigation/prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Each step is designed to stimulate critical thinking about crisis preparedness.
Getting these plans right is absolutely critical. They can be the difference between a calm, orderly response and chaos; between decisive, courageous action and inaction; and ultimately between life and death.
It’s our hope that these steps, adapted from information from the Department of Education’s Practical Information on Crisis Planning, can serve as a template for school officials creating a crisis response plan as well as those looking to assess and update existing plans.
Crisis Management Planning 101
As mentioned above, there are four phases of crisis management:
- Mitigation/Prevention addresses what schools and districts can do to reduce or eliminate risk to life and property.
- Preparedness focuses on planning for the worst case scenario.
- Response refers to the steps officials must take during a crisis event.
- Recovery is about restoring the learning environment following a crisis event.
Officials shouldn’t think of themselves as “done” or “not done” with their crisis management plan. Instead they should constantly be looking for ways to update their plans based on new information and experiences.
Here’s some of the most important advice for officials to follow to develop effective plans (some of which are reiterated in the action steps below):
- Effective crisis planning begins with top-level leadership to help set the policy agenda, secure funds and bring people from different agencies together.
- Crisis plans can’t be developed in a vacuum.
- Schools and districts should begin communicating and building relationships well before a crisis occurs.
- Plans should be developed with community groups including law enforcement, fire safety officials, emergency medical services and mental health professionals.
- Establish a clear and common vocabulary.
- Tailor plans at the district level to each school’s needs.
- Plan for the diverse needs of students and employees.
- Ensure teachers and staff have ready access to the plan.
- Train and drill
Now on to the action steps.
Mitigation and Prevention
School officials can’t always prevent a crisis from occurring, but they can take action to decrease the likelihood of certain events and mitigate the damage that all crises can cause.
That requires officials to assess the risks posed to their campus and community and take steps to reduce the likelihood or damage of those threats.
Many of these actions should include the wider community such as a regional or state emergency management office and other local response agencies.
Here are some action steps for officials looking to start or improve their plan:
1. Know the school campus
Assess potential hazards and conduct regular safety audits that include driveways, parking lots, playgrounds, outside structures and fencing.
2. Know the community
Work with local emergency management directors (you may want to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU)) to identify and assess surrounding hazards. Locate major transportation routes and address potential terrorism threats.
3. Bring together regional, local and school leaders, among others
Mitigation and prevention are community activities, and having the right people at the planning table is key. Schools and districts will have a much harder time if local and state governments are not supportive of their efforts.
4. Establish clear lines of communication
Communication is vital both within the planning team and with outside groups like families and the greater community.
Planning for a crisis can take significant time and resources, but it’s necessary to ensure a quick and effective response.
Be realistic about the time it will take to craft a comprehensive crisis plan and define roles and responsibilities at the district and school level early on. Breaking the process down into manageable steps will make planning easier.
Here are the action steps related to the preparedness phase:
5. Bring in stakeholders that will be involved in creating the crisis plan
Get feedback from stakeholders on the parts of the plan that pertain to them. Create working relationships with emergency responders with an eye toward integrating resources (you should also learn how these agencies function, how you’ll work with them and their vocabulary, among other things).
6. Consider existing efforts
Before creating your school’s plan, consider district and local government crisis plans.
7. Decide what crises the plan will address
Define what would constitute a crisis based on vulnerabilities, needs and assets. Describe the types of crises the plan addresses. Determine which crises will require outside agencies to address and how they will interact with school staff in those situations.
8. Define roles and responsibilities
How will the school operate during a crisis? Create an organizational system that defines what should happen, when, and at whose direction. This should involve members of the school staff. And remember: Important tasks may be neglected if one person is responsible for more than one function. Individuals and backups should be assigned for each role. Appoint a public information officer. Many schools and emergency responders use the Incident Command System, or ICS, to manage incidents.
9. Develop methods for communicating with staff, students, families and the media
One of the first steps in planning for communication is developing a mechanism to notify students and staff that an incident is occurring and to instruct them on what to do. Schools and emergency responders should use the same definitions for the same terms (FEMA recommends using plain language, not codes). If students are evacuated from the school building, will staff use cell phones, radios, intercoms, or runners to get information to the staff supervising them? Plan how you’ll communicate with families, community members and members of the media (who can be very helpful during a crisis). Consider writing template letters and press releases in advance so staff will not have to compose them during the event.
10. Obtain necessary equipment and supplies
Provide staff with the necessary equipment to respond to a crisis. Emergency responders may need complete access to the school, how will that be accomplished? Get the phones or radios necessary for communication. Ask for contact information for families. Maintain a cache of first aid supplies. Consider food and water reserves for students and staff.
11. Prepare for an immediate response
Plan action steps for evacuations (with backup areas), reverse evacuations and lockdowns. The picture below shows questions school officials can use to determine which action is most appropriate for each situation:
12. Create maps and facilities information
Site maps should include information about classrooms, hallways and stairwells, the location of utility shut-offs, potential staging sites and student parent reunification zones. Emergency responders need copies of this information in advance.
13. Develop accountability and student release procedures
When a crisis occurs, account for all students, staff, and visitors. A method should be in place for tracking student release and ensuring that students are only released to authorized individuals.
Emergency drills and things like tabletop exercises that include all relevant stakeholders are key to preparedness. These drills can also help you identify additional vulnerabilities.
15. Address liability concerns
Your school and staff can be susceptible to lawsuits in situations where there’s foreseeable danger but you don’t make a reasonable effort to intervene or resolve the situation.
Emergencies are when you should be following your crisis plan, not creating it.
Below are action items for response:
16. Assess the situation and select the right response
Identifying the type of crisis along with its magnitude and location are critical to crafting an appropriate response.
17. Respond in seconds
With clearly defined roles and responsibilities, as well as training, officials should be able to effectively respond immediately.
18. Notify appropriate responders
During a legitimate crisis, outside emergency responders should be contacted as soon as possible, even if officials believe the situation can be solved without them. Additionally, notifying members of the school or district crisis response team allows them to begin handling their responsibilities.
19. Evacuate or lockdown the school as appropriate
This should be one of the first decisions made.
20. Provide first aid to those who require it
21. Keep supplies nearby and organized at all times
Disperse appropriate information to both the school and the local community. The public information officer should be the person communicating with the media. Members of the crisis response team should communicate consistently with staff members handling students.
23. Implement student release
The goal should be the earliest possible safe release of students.
24. Document, document, document
Track every action taken during the response, and record damage and financial expenditures for insurance purposes. Keep all of your original notes and records for legal purposes.
Restoring a safe learning environment as soon as possible after a crisis is the goal of the recovery stage. Staff members can be trained to initially assess the emotional needs of students, staff and responders (determining those roles and providing training should be done in the preparedness phase).
Providing a supportive, comfortable environment on campus is crucial.
Here are the action steps for the recovery stage.
25. Assemble the crisis intervention team
26. Keep students, parents and the media informed
Tell the community about support services and resources you’re making available.
27. Repair any physical damage to the campus
28. Determine emotional needs of students, staff and responders
Identify those who may need intervention from a counselor, social worker, psychologist or other mental health professional. Group interventions may also appropriate.
29. Offer stress management exercises during classes
Allow students to talk about their feelings and crisis experience. Creative activities and group sessions may be appropriate. Address any issues of guilt.
30. Conduct daily briefings for those involved in the recovery efforts
Debriefings may help staff cope with their own feelings of vulnerability.
Assess your recovery efforts by conducting interviews and holding focus groups. Consider the following:
- What classroom interventions were the most successful and why?
- Which assessment and referral strategies were the most successful and why?
- Which recovery strategies would you change and why?
- Do other professionals need to be tapped to help with future crises?
- What additional training might be necessary?
- What additional equipment is needed?
- What other planning actions will facilitate future recovery efforts?
The recovery phase of your crisis management is not the end of the process. Evaluating each incident is crucial to learning and improving. Officials must then apply what they learned to their plan to update and strengthen it.
The above information was adapted from the Department of Education’s Practical Implementation on Crisis Planning.