Proactive Campus Emergency Communication
School officials must develop proactive and strategic response plans
- By Tony Bradberry
- December 01, 2018
Emergencies occur in educational facilities across the
country every day; defined as situations that can negatively
and significantly impact students, families, officials
and communities. In emergency situations, seconds
count, so knowing how to immediately identify and
respond effectively to any level of emergency is critical.
DEFINING AN EMERGENCY
An emergency is any serious, unexpected, and often dangerous, situation
requiring immediate action. Ask any campus official, school
administrator or member of the maintenance staff what constitutes an
emergency and responses will differ significantly. This is because what
is an emergency for one group of individuals may not necessarily be an
emergency for another.
Emergencies are relative to the responder of the emergency. For
instance, a police officer would certainly consider an active shooter in
a school setting an emergency, but would probably not consider a
weather-related event or fight inside a school an emergency in the
same manner that a school administrator would. Similarly, campus
maintenance would have a completely different set of emergencies,
potentially related to mechanical breakdowns, freezer temperatures or
server rooms that would not be emergencies to law enforcement or the
administrator. While these are all emergencies, they are on a sliding
scale, based on the responder.
Emergencies of some type are inevitable and school officials must
develop proactive and strategic response plans for all types of emergencies.
BUILDING AN APPROPRIATE PLAN BEGINS
WITH IDENTIFYING EMERGENCIES
Fires, weather events and active shooters are the three most commonly
recognized emergencies that schools face.
Fire. All schools plan extensively for fire emergencies with required
monthly fire drills and mandated annual inspections of equipment. Students
are well aware of actions to take in case of fire. Interestingly, it has
been 60 years since any K-12 experienced a fatality due to fire, yet every
facility has a fire alarm and every school conducts regular fire drills.
Weather Emergencies. Schools also regularly practice for weather
emergencies. For instance, campuses in areas that experience tornados
hold regular tornado drills and often test tornado sirens. Detailed
plans are in place and practiced, even though tornadoes are only seasonal threat.
Active shooter. In contrast most schools have significantly fewer,
less developed plans in place for active shooter events. Most school
officials are working on this proactively, however preparedness and
protection plans trail significantly behind those in place for fire or
weather-related threats. Many schools practice only one active shooter
drill per year and others have no alarm or warning system in place
similar to the warnings for tornados or fires.
OTHER EMERGENCIES TO CONSIDER
WHEN DEVELOPING PLANS
Less familiar emergencies can also represent danger for schools and
require emergency plans. These could include geographical-related emergencies,
non-traditional location emergencies and facility emergencies.
Geographical-based emergencies. Certain emergencies can arise
based on where an educational facility is located and must be considered
when developing emergency plans. For example, a school in Arizona
may need an alarm for dust storms or haboobs, while this is
unnecessary for a school in the Midwest. A school located near a prison
or high-crime area may have different emergency needs than a
campus in a rural area.
Non-traditional location emergencies. Any time education occurs
beyond the traditional classroom, school leaders need plans for emergency
situations that address the specific setting. For instance, is there
a plan in place for children on field trips, including where students will
regroup and who is responsible for what? Is there a plan for students
studying in the campus quad if an emergency arises? Temporary events
can also present emergency challenges. For example, during a graduation
on the football field, what security is in place for an open venue
with a large number of people and limited exit points? What is the
preparedness plan to protect that area this venue?
Facility emergencies. Critical equipment within campus facilities also
requires emergency back-up plans. If a server goes down for a week, can
teachers still grade? If campus buildings lose heat or air, can students still
attend? How is the school monitoring these critical systems?
HAVE A PLAN IN PLACE AND PRACTICE THE PLAN
When creating a plan for each emergency, ask these three questions:
Who do I contact? How will I contact them? What do I say?
Who do I contact? When an emergency occurs, it’s important to
contact those affected in a way that enables immediate response to
those in need. Everyone in an emergency situation fits into one of three
categories (the “three Rs”)
Responders. These are the individuals who are expected to rectify the
situation. They are the first people who need to know about an emergency.
Reactors. These are people directly affected by the emergency. They
are potentially required to help resolve issues.
Revisionists. These are people who need to know about the situation
after the fact. (This may mean notification two minutes after
Responders and Reactors or two days after the situation, if they aren’t
When developing a plan for an emergency, leaders must consider
what category groups of people fall into for each emergency. The
category that individuals are listed within can change, based on the
It is imperative that leaders do not contact everyone (Responders,
Reactors and Revisionists) at the same time. Emergency plans should
always stage the information so responders are the first to arrive with
clear access. For example, when parents are notified of an emergency,
the natural response is to retrieve their children from the school,
which creates a backlog of traffic, may necessitate crowd control and
delays important response time.
How will I contact them? How the emergency notification is delivered
is important. Emergency notifications may be audio, text, visual,
Always match the method of contact to the level of urgency required.
For instance, an active shooter emergency requires a quick response,
which means bypassing today’s overworked and understaffed 911 system
altogether and contacting law enforcement by radio for immediate
response. Conversely, a weather-related emergency may simply require
a lesser response, such as video board signage.
Match the gravity of the situation to determine how quickly a
response is needed. Remember, all categories of individuals (Responders,
Reactors, Revisionists) do not need to be contacted the same way
or at the same time, but officials do need a carefully considered, predetermined
plan for contacting each group.
What do I say? Develop a well-planned strategy for what the emergency
information must convey. Determine the relevant information
to convey to the individuals in each category (Responders, Reactors,
Revisionists) during each emergency. Avoid providing an “information
dump”, as this will slow down response time.
Ensure the information itself is conveyed in a standard format
across all notifications. Emergency notifications should be pre-recorded
- This ensures information is well thought-out, succinct and first
responders know how the information will be presented, which
- This eliminates false or misinformation. Inaccurate details or
descriptions can delay appropriate response. NO information,
which first responders are trained to work with, is better than incorrect information.
- This allows for consistent training and drill. The human brain is
trained to respond to triggers. That’s why the emergency broadcast
system always uses the same alert tones and the same voice. The
human brain hears the familiar sound and starts to fill in the blanks
of what the emergency may be. Because the brain is already prepared
to hear the emergency, the individual can get through the
initial shock and start acclimating to the sense of emergency more
quickly. The consistent sound makes the emergency situation more
manageable, should it arise.
THE QUICKER THE RESPONSE, THE BETTER THE RESULT
Research shows in an emergency such as a school shooting, ensuring
that armed law enforcement is onsite immediately is the quickest way
to end the situation. The quicker law enforcement enters the building,
the better the outcome is going to be.
The best way to document and implement a plan for any school facility
or campus is to work with the local law enforcement agency. As individuals
who work within the system, they are aware of the strengths and
potential pitfalls within their own local community’s response and can
help educational facilities create plans best suited to each local situation.
Simply establishing an emergency response plan is not enough.
Educational facilities need to practice the plan regularly and re-evaluate
the plan constantly. Law enforcement presents an excellent example
of this. Police officers constantly train. In the same way, teachers, students
and others with the potential of being involved in an emergency
situation need to train.
It’s important to train correctly. Conducting an active shooter drill is
beneficial, but bringing a law enforcement agency to participate in the
drill elevates the training to a new level. This can also help determine
how quickly officers can arrive and assist in identifying possible navigation
challenges or choke points, should a true emergency occur. Regular
training is particularly important for campuses with multiple facilities.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST EQUIPS
SCHOOLS TO RESPOND WITH THEIR BEST
Advance emergency preparation is necessary. Identifying, communicating
and facilitating immediate response in emergency situations
begins by understanding possible emergencies, from the most
common challenges to the less familiar potential threats. Thoroughly
examine all aspects of the campus, including location, activities
and events, when developing a comprehensive response plan. Consider
the Responders, Reactionists and Revisionists for each situation
and determine when and how these groups are contacted.
Remember that the best response plan is only as strong as the consistent
training and practice that supports it. Make
safety and emergency training a regular priority to
ensure that the right actions and clear communication
become second nature for all involved.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.