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Crisis Management in Elementary Schools, Part 2:

Building / Mechanical, Natural, and Catastrophic

A Brief Review…

Last week, I set the scene for you at your school – young students are doing what they do, parents are doing what they do, and your day is unfolding as it always does: 20 things going on at once!

THEN, WITHOUT WARNING:

The electricity cuts out! OR… the weather takes a turn for the worse and a tornado alert is on! OR… the local Fire Crew Captain interrupts your meeting and informs you a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and there is a leak! OR…you get the idea!

Leadership is keeping your head when everyone else is losing theirs! YOU - as SCHOOL LEADER - have to act with authority, knowledge, and composure.

While any form of crisis is shocking, having planned and practiced policies and procedures in place before hand goes a long way to help people keep their wits about them. As school leader, consider the following as you examine your school’s existing processes (OR discover that your school doesn’t have any)… read on!

My Building Is Solid… Right?

Maybe, maybe not! Building / mechanical system failure is never far away due to internal and external factors.

X-ray vision for looking behind walls is not necessarily granted in administrator training. Each school facility is unique, with its charms and its challenges - knowing your building is key to planning for crises.

In a building / mechanical failure crisis, the simplest questions are the most important:

  1. Is there an immediate danger or need to evacuate, or is it inconvenience?
  2. If inconvenience, can the business of the school continue? If so, for how long?

SITUATIONS AND POINTS TO CONSIDER

a. ELECTRICAL FAILURE

  • Do you know where main electrical panel is?
  • How your school is sectioned electrically?

Internal power outages can occur due to a variety of reasons, including overload of old infrastructure by new demands, or squirrels chewing on cords! External reasons can include electrical poles and wires being knocked over, storms, generator plant issues.

CONSIDER – are your water systems still working (i.e. are they independently powered?) What about your phones? Can your students and staff continue to learn and teach by moving to naturally lit areas, classes combined, and so on until the end of the school day with minimum discomfort?

b. WATER SYSTEM FAILURE

  • Do you know where your main water supply shut off is, or valves to certain parts of your building?

Pipes bursting due to freezing or corrosion, low water pressure due to clogs external to your building (like tree roots), or even human interference can have an effect.

CONSIDER – how long will the water be off? Does your infrastructure allow for shutting off water to certain parts of the building only? Does the low or no water issue compromise your fire-suppression system? No or low water usually means evacuation of the building after a short amount of time due to this, not to mention well hygiene issues.

c. HVAC SYSTEM FAILURE

  • Do you know where your main control panel is for the HVAC system?
  • Do you know how the sections of your building are supplied, with building schematic drawings are for reference?

Clogs and blockage in old ductwork, heating / cooling coil breakdown, internal or external fumes, and allergens are all possibilities.

CONSIDER – are there employee working condition rules about room temperature? Can teaching and learning continue to the end of the day?

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Mother Nature Gets Into A Mood On Occasion…!

Just like X-ray vision doesn’t come with the training, weather control by Principals is still in the research and development stages! Climate and extreme weather can has the potential to significantly affect your students, staff, and school. Of course our geographic location dictates our severe weather patterns; hurricanes, extreme heat or cold, thunderstorms and tornadic activity, snowstorms, sandstorms all can be factors.

SITUATIONS AND POINTS TO CONSIDER

a. BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS FOR THE DAY

Think of the school and all of its workings both human and mechanical as a large rock at the top of a hill just about to start rolling down! Once that rock starts rolling, it takes significant effort to stop it (if it can be stopped at all). If extreme weather is present or on its way, consider:

  • How are students getting to school? Bus? Personal vehicle? Walking? How safe is travel for your staff and students? If your school starts at 7:30 AM, your transportation system may be already on the roads by 6:30 AM. Advance notice as much as possible gives people the most opportunity to make alternative plans (for example, care for young children who are unable to make it to school).
  • Communication: what is your best way to get your message out about school cancellation or postponement? Radio? Your school’s Internet page? Twitter? The key is to have the system set up well in advance so that your school community knows where to check / listen.
  • What plans do you have in place for students who DO show up to school anyway? Think about an alternative timetable, combining classes, and so on.
  • Liability – who has ultimate responsibility for closing your school for the day? You? A Board of Directors?

b. DURING THE SCHOOL DAY

Weather predictability is an inexact science at best! What if the weather changes for the worse DURING your school day?

  • Do you have shelter-in-place plans for extreme wind, tornadic activity, loss of electrical power, and so on? Consult with your local emergency services for best practices.
  • If transportation is cancelled during the day (for instance, in a flash freeze that makes roads too dangerous, or road closures due to blizzard or other compromised visibility conditions), what plans do you have in place to keep students and staff longer at school? Students, especially younger ones, can become very anxious – have a plan for an assembly, games, movie, and so forth. If your school has a strict cell phone policy, allow for flexibility so that students and parents can communicate. Finally, have a system of rations in place, such as juice boxes, packaged healthy snacks – while some of these are not the most healthy on a daily basis, a one-off emergency stash can go a long way in maintaining some normalcy (and we all like treats, don’t we!)
  • Communication: it’s a common theme! Think about how to best get your message out: radio, mass email, web page updates and so on.

Catastrophic Events In The Community

At the risk of being cliché… accidents happen! Depending on your local school situation, be it rural or urban, differing incidents occur in spite of best health and safety efforts by all. As with weather events, accidents can force you to shelter-in-place, or evacuate your building.

SITUATIONS AND POINTS TO CONSIDER

a.AIR CONTAMINANTS – what industries are around your school in varying radii length? Chemical manufacturing? Plastics? Oil refineries? Natural Gas? Railway or major highways? Smoke from nearby building fires?

CONSIDER:

  • Shelter-in-place plans involve two aspects: turning off the HVAC system, and closing windows and doors. Shelter-in-place may involve keeping students just in their own classroom, or school may be able to continue on as regular basis as possible (i.e. classes rotating, and so on). If a hot climate is an issue, have fans stored such that they can be deployed strategically.

OR

  • Evacuation and / or Closure of School: do you have a secondary site to which all students and staff can be evacuated, such as a local YMCA, gymnasium sport facility, or similar? Naturally this depends on the nature of the contaminant, but it is a possibility. Have a place picked out, with up-do-date information such as student home phone numbers and parent names locked in a secure pat of the secondary site. Your local emergency personnel will advise.

b. SURPRISE EVENTS: Sinkholes in parking lots? Artificial or natural hills suddenly sliding after a heavy rainfall? A nearby motor vehicle accident requiring emergency personnel? Your school being used as a sudden shelter for an emergency evacuation?

You can drive yourself to distraction, or worse, paralyse yourself with “what if” scenarios! The key point is to distinguish what is possible as opposed what is probable. Once again, established and known communication avenues are of critical importance to get information quickly and efficiently.

What Now?

Has what you have just read given you cause for concern? Or, even MORE concern than last week’s blog?

Once again, If you said yes, this is good - believe it or not!

Knowledge is power, as the saying goes… learn more about your facility and its surrounding area. You’ll be glad that you did, and your students, staff and community will thank you!

Reminder:

Next week, I will be expanding on the specific areas of human emergency, such as medical fragility, injury, and intruders within the school and outside of the school.

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Michael J. Schneider, M. Ed. is a proven education leader with experience in K-12 schools around the world. His blogs examine current educational topics, with a view to enlighten and encourage action.