Natural disasters happen in many ways and places – a hurricane in Florida, a flood in Missouri, a tornado in Oklahoma, a wildfire in Colorado or an earthquake in California.

Then there are the man-made disasters such as chemical spills, traffic accidents or a shooter on campus.

While they may differ in cause, they all share one thing in common – each can cause tremendous property damage, personal injury and loss of life.And each can, and often does, impact the operation of a school, college or university.

As we prepare for a new school year it is time to dust off old emergency plans or create one if none existed before. Administrators cannot mitigate all damages from natural disasters and crisis situations, but with a well-written and practiced emergency plan it is possible to limit damages and injuries and/or deaths. It will take time and effort from many people to create the plan and with good fortune it will never need to be implemented. But should it ever be needed, the effort will be a wise investment.

A successful emergency plan, whether new or updated, requires input from all segments of the campus – police/security, IT, maintenance, human resources, faculty, parents and most of all, students. Begin the process by creating a task force. Select leaders, delineate roles and assign tasks during the first meeting. Get full contact information, such as office, home and mobile phone numbers and email address, for each member of the task force. Be sure to involve administrators, board members, other decision makers and local law enforcement, fire fighters and paramedics (first responders). They are an integral part of an effective emergency plan.

In addition, provide first responders with contact numbers for all task force members; an updated list of how many people you have on campus and the likely locations of any disabled persons that might need extra assistance and blueprints and maps of the campus (if available).

With the task force in place begin a risk assessment to try to anticipate any and all emergencies that might occur on your campus. This is a good time to work closely with your own campus police officer, security staff, local law enforcement and fire professionals. These professionals have likely been through many of the emergencies you are preparing for and their expertise will be extremely valuable. Walk around the campus and look for possible vulnerabilities – making note of any toxic materials or animals on campus. Also consider the surrounding community because what happens there affects your campus.

As the plan progresses, encourage task force members to take responsibility for their part of the plan. During an emergency, they can be a tremendous resource. For example, they may lock or unlock doors, stop or redirect traffic, power down vital equipment or lead evacuations.

With the team in place, roles defined and a risk assessment completed, draft the plan in writing and do practice drills. After practicing the plan, carefully evaluate it to see what worked and what did not. Make adjustments where necessary and then conduct more drills. Once the plan is finalized, create a final document and distribute to each campus employee. And then practice it again. This should be a living document that can change as needs and circumstances change.

Practice the plan at least twice a year to ensure that everyone – especially new hires who may not have had a chance to participate previously - knows their role and is comfortable executing it, in the event of a real emergency.

If a campus evacuation should become necessary, locate a place that can accommodate your evacuees, such as a nearby shopping mall, church or park. And have a backup ready if the weather makes an outdoor site dangerous. Transportation is an important part of this process.

Do not forget that you will need to maintain communications with people during an emergency. Faculty, staff, students, parents and media need up-to-date information. In an emergency situation, widely disseminated, up-to-date information can be a lifesaver.

This is where mass notification systems come into play.

Currently, there are Web-based solutions available that can notify thousands of people within seconds, giving them vital information and instructions during a crisis. This information can be sent to a person’s home or mobile telephone, e-mail, digital pager, fax machine and wireless PDA device. Each user can choose a preferred communications device. This solution can also be used for non-emergency communications such as a reminder to parents of a scheduled teacher conference or students of changes in their daily schedules.

These solutions require no software or system installation and accept message input from an Internet-connected computer or any telephone. A designated staff member may type in a message that will be turned into a computer-generated voice or text message or the user may request to record a message in his or her own voice. Should a computer not be available during an emergency, the staff member may call a toll-free number to reach live representative who will then compose and send the message.

The receipt of every message is automatically verified and recorded, while busy signals or no-answers result in repeated contact attempts until the message is received. Messages can be delivered in a choice of 10 languages.

In addition, new outdoor emergency communication systems are available that use intelligible voice technology to provide warnings and real-time information to people in dangerous areas. These systems, which can be pole mounted or placed on a portable platform, utilize specialized speaker technology that can be clearly heard up to one-quarter mile away, broadcasting messages to thousands of people in seconds.

These systems can greatly enhance the ability to quickly reach large numbers of faculty, staff and students with vital information that may help them survive an emergency.

Make it clear in your plan who has the authority to issue emergency messages and have a multi-level chain of command so that if the first designated person is unavailable it is clear who assumes that responsibility without delay. Seconds count in an emergency.

The main ingredients to an emergency plan are prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Minimizing injury and property damage in an emergency situation is all about careful, meticulous planning – and a lot of practice. Find roles in the plan for as many people as possible, keep in close contact with your first responders and take advantage of available technology. No plan can guarantee perfect results, but, having no plan at all, increases the chances of a disastrous outcome.

(Patrick V. Fiel, Sr. is the public safety advisor for Tyco Integrated Security. He brings more than 30 years of security/law enforcement experience to the position. For six years was executive director of school security of Washington, D.C. Public School System, where he managed 163 school campuses. During his tenure with the United States Army Military Police Corps, he had operational and management oversight roles with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at the Pentagon, at NATO Headquarters – Belgium and at West Point Military Academy.)

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