The following actions for all school officials:
- Identify hazards likely to happen to your schools
- Mitigate against the hazards
- Develop a response plan, including evacuation route
- Plan for coping after a disaster
- Implement drills and family education
Begin with a determination of which natural and technological disasters are possible in your area. Don't assume you know all the risks. You may be surprised to learn that your area is subject to natural disasters you hadn't anticipated. Also, remember that disasters can have a cascading effect. Think about how transportation routes or other external factors may also affect your schools: Are you near a major highway where hazardous chemicals are transported, putting your school in danger of a chemical spill?
Once you find out what disasters are possible in your area, assess your structures. Falling objects, fires, and the release of hazardous materials, flying debris and roof collapse, cause most of the injuries and deaths related to disasters. Be sure, then, to look for such hazards when doing your assessment.
Conduct your survey in a systematic manner, making an inventory of all items that require attention. It may be possible to enlist volunteers from among your parents or emergency management community. This is no paper exercise. You and your staff must personally walk the halls and classrooms to determine what risks exist. Before a disaster, schools should document their property, something that can be done as part of the hazard assessment. Schools that take photos and videos prior are far ahead in recovery with less hassle and more quickly restored than the schools where files are missing and records were not kept.
Mitigate Against Hazards
Based on your assessment it’s best to prioritize your needed mitigation measures by degree of life safety, cost, frequency of identified potential hazard and potential number of people exposed. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that you will have the unlimited resources necessary to make all mitigation measures that you might like, but many important measures are reasonably priced for the protection they offer - a good cost/benefit ratio. Many measures are simply common sense and will cost almost nothing - like moving chemicals to lower shelves or placing electronic equipment and computers on higher floors if you have a flood risk. Approved storage cabinets for hazardous materials cost about $500 and shatter resistant plastic film covering glass cases cost $2 to $7 per square foot. Some schools have a bucket in each classroom, stenciled with the room number that include immediate first aid and rescue tools. Schools must consider disaster preparedness and mitigation as important as the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic - regardless of tight school budgets.
Developing A Response Plan
It is important to remember that while your focus is planning how to safeguard your school and students during and immediately following a natural disaster, your plan must incorporate the larger issues that will be facing the community at such times. For example, any large disaster will result in widespread telephone outages, damage to roads and bridges, loss or damage of utility systems, fires, release of hazardous materials and possibly flash flooding relating to dam damage or damage to sewer and water systems. Even medium-sized disasters will quickly push your community's normal emergency response forces to the limits. For example, ambulances and fire engines may be committed to responding to another part of the disaster. Citizens, businesses and others may need to depend on their own resources for hours and days. School disaster plans must take this into account with the goal of being able to survive on your own - food, water and power - for 72 hours after a catastrophic disaster.
It's important to have a school-based emergency plan that includes key components to a successful management of an emergency: an incident commander, search and rescue team, hazardous materials, security, utilities, assembly area, first aid, reunion gate for students and fire suppression team. FEMA also recommends keeping good records and logs before and after a disaster and to keep a tab on money spent for supplies and equipment damaged to make it easier for schools to receive reimbursements they might be entitled to.
It's important that your plan address safe evacuation routes, keeping in mind your potential hazards, including the location of gas and power lines, chain link fences, transportation routes of vehicles carrying hazardous material, clay or slate tiles on the roof etc. Obviously, select an evacuation route that minimizes exposure to hazards, and have a back-up route in case of debris. The advantage of using the same evacuation route for a fire is that it is easier for students and staff to remember; the disadvantage is that different disasters may block evacuation routes in different ways. Your plan should also address the needs of students and staff with disabilities and the possibility of debris covering the floor. Consider keeping a push broom in every room with mobility impaired people or consider having a buddy system to assist persons with disabilities. Be sure to practice this during disaster drills. Also consider evacuation plans for any animals that may live at the school, including those in science classrooms. They should be evacuated as well since it is often impossible to know how long you will need to be away from the school. Your local humane society of animal welfare organization can assist with animal disaster planning.
Your disaster planning should also include an onsite shelter because disasters may occur that require you to keep students overnight. Your plan should focus on such issues as where students will sleep and which rooms are the safest. It's important each school has sufficient supplies for use during an emergency, including: food, stored water, flashlights with batteries, first aid kits, blankets, battery-powered radio and other supplies. After a disaster, your school may serve as the gathering place for hundreds of people who live or work nearby. Your plan should address how school personnel are released and in what order. Some staff, for example, may live nearby and may be able to stay while others have small children and will need to get home in the case of an emergency. All staff, however, must have back-up family plans in case they cannot return home or must remain at the school following a major disaster. This responsibility to students in a disaster should be covered in each individual's contract.
While planning can be an overwhelming process, it may help to sketch out a chronology of what to do immediately following a disaster. Often the first decision will be to evacuate or to stay put. Your plan will address both options. Your plan must then address what actions to take if there are people who will remain in the buildings. Damage must be assessed and damaged portions of the building sealed off. Injured students and staff must be attended to. All people in the buildings must be accounted for and searches initiated for the missing. Small fires must be extinguished and utilities assessed and shut off, if necessary. Hazardous spills must be contained and sealed off. Of course, students need to be kept calm and reassured. Staff must be responsible for establishing contact with the outside and for handling media questions. Someone - the principal or designee, should be identified as the Incident Commander and in charge of the disaster scene. Individual schools may use the term campus commander to differentiate from the top school district level incident commander.
Make sure that there are keys to ensure access to the supplies during an emergency, including access by programs such as day care and after-school events. Plan an annual inventory, replacing water and other items with limited shelf life as necessary.
Some schools ask students to bring in their own kits. Student-assembled "comfort kits" typically include a little food, some water, a space blanket or large plastic trash bag, a non-toxic chemical emergency light stick and a letter or photograph from home. These kits can be helpful, but require a great deal of time and supervision to assemble and check when they are brought to school. Sometimes parents include perishable items by mistake, and some parents do not send anything at all. The school will need a plan to make sure that each student has a kit. Vendors sell expensive individual kits as well, with much of the value in the packaging.