The Central-Office Role in School Emergencies

by Pegi McEvoy and Cathy Reineke

It's 11:15 a.m. and a bomb threat is called in to one of your district's school buildings. The news media is swarming outside, and microphones and cameras are being shoved into the faces of evacuated staff members and students.

On another day, a school kitchen catches fire. And on still another occasion, a school bus gets into an accident, severely injuring a group of students.

The responsibilities of the site-based staff in such episodes are clear cut. But what are the central-office roles in emergency management? And ask yourself this: If your school district was sued after an emergency, would you be able to go to court and defend your planning and actions?

Complicating Factors

As a school nurse and a district risk manager, we have spent the past five years attempting to find the magic solution to the emergency management conundrum in the Seattle Public Schools. Our district operates more than 100 sites with principals who may or may not be committed to emergency preparedness, while many staff members received little or fragmented training in responding to emergencies in the course of obtaining their credentials.

Complicating the picture is the fact we have downsized the central office during the last several years to maximize the resources allocated to the schools. While we are committed to site-based management, we continue to be responsible for responding effectively at times of emergencies.

In 1993, the Seattle Board of Education formed a safe schools committee, composed of central administrators, school staff and community members, to review the state of emergency protocol and make safety recommendations. The committee found that planning had begun in most schools and some central offices, but the completeness and quality of plans varied greatly. And once completed, the plans were often shelved and forgotten ... even when the next emergency occurred.

Further, few central-office administrators had disaster recovery plans developed by site administrators. The safe schools committee identified emergency management needs and issued recommendations including a call for the district to adopt a multilevel emergency management system.

Meeting Site Needs

To effectively manage an emergency at a school site, several needs must be addressed:

* Everyone must speak the same language.

In many emergencies, especially those most publicly scrutinized, we involve community emergency responders. We chose to use the nationally recognized incident command model, an emergency management system widely used by fire and police agencies. This facilitates the coordination between our central-office and building staff and emergency personnel.

* The emergency response system must expand or contract depending on the severity of the emergency.

In the past, our district had developed crisis-specific response plans for bomb threats, weapons, fires and natural disasters. This multiplan approach left staff confused about their roles in each type of emergency and often delayed an effective response. A more unified and flexible model today assigns staff members to consistent teams with particular responsibilities that can be activated as needed.

* The model should be simple and easy to use at the central office and in schools.

School districts have many competing priorities each day. When time and money are spent on emergency planning and resources, they are not spent on promoting academic achievement. Central-office and school staff can easily adapt our plan and more efficiently use resources. The particulars of our plan, organized into a flip chart, allow staff to focus on simulations and recovery strategies.

Regular Checkups

* The model should allow for ease of training.

Administrators need a conceptual framework that allows new, itinerant and substitute staff to be easily assimilated into the emergency plan. Districts face limited time and resources for training and plan maintenance. Uniform models encourage a centrally sponsored train-the-trainer approach. It also allows staff to break down the seemingly overwhelming challenge of emergency management into smaller units and skills that can be learned over time.

* The model must allow for evaluation.

Frequently, principals and others administrators lament, "I can't tell if the plan will work or not ... and I don't want to wait for a disaster to find out!" Staff must be given goals and objectives they can measure. Each time our superintendent arrives at a school, he can look for the school's multilevel emergency plan and confirm that assignments are made and resources are available. He can interview staff and determine if they understand their roles in an emergency. He can observe an emergency drill and evaluate the school district's response.

We expect all staff to respond effectively to critical though infrequent events and return to the business of education as soon as possible. Central administrators need to provide the leadership, a conceptual model, resources, training and evaluation.

Are you ready to lead the response and are your staff members ready to respond?

Pegi McEvoy is a nurse practitioner and professional development coordinator for the comprehensive health department in the Seattle Public Schools, 13720 Roosevelt Way N., Seattle, Wash. 98133. E-mail: Cathy Reineke, a consultant, spent nine years as risk manager for the Seattle district.