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Lessons From the Field: Improving ICS Implementation in Schools

Unlocking Diversity in Emergency Response Plans

In my work as a school safety consultant, I typically review five or more school emergency response plans per week. While around 5% of these plans lack any structured emergency response management system, the vast majority (95%) do delineate roles and responsibilities for crises. The wide variety of approaches keeps my job engaging - just when I think I've seen every system design out there, a creative new one appears. Overall, I find most existing command structures have more strengths than weaknesses and should be reasonably effective if implemented properly during an actual emergency. However, through my reviews, I've observed some common practices across plans that could be reconsidered and improved upon to maximize the effectiveness of school emergency response management.

My top concern is how school emergency response systems often differ from standard Incident Command System (ICS) structures. While educational ICS should be tailored to institutional needs, core roles and sections should remain aligned. This enables coordination with external agencies also using ICS.

Schools rightly modify ICS by trimming unnecessary functional groups from the FEMA model and incorporating key priorities like reunification. However, shared roles should be altered cautiously, as unfamiliar titles like "administrator on duty" versus Incident Commander hinder joint response.

At a minimum, school ICS should preserve common roles like Incident Commander, Operations Lead, Communications Lead, and Liaison. Renaming the Incident Commander role is particularly problematic. Instead of changing titles, better to adjust who fills the role per situation. Keeping school ICS aligned with interagency standards remains critical for smooth collaboration.

Separating Crisis Response from Emergency Management

Another concerning trend is conflating crisis intervention with emergency response structures. While crisis teams provide critical support, they differ from ICS for operations.

Crisis teams often focus narrowly on recent threats, rather than an all-hazards approach. This makes responding to disruptive emergencies difficult.

The solution is distinct systems: one crisis response team for emotional support and a separate ICS for operational response. Though comprising similar members, each team should have unique objectives, training, structures, and guidelines. This enables comprehensive, specialized preparation for both crises and emergencies.

Assigning ICS Roles for Effective Emergency Response

Even schools with well-designed emergency management systems often undermine effectiveness through suboptimal role assignments. I frequently observe that the entire ICS command staff is comprised of just 3-4 senior administrators. This significantly overloads these individuals, as no one can realistically oversee multiple complex functions during an emergency.

For example, I'll see a Vice Principal assigned as the lead for communications, logistics, and facilities teams simultaneously. When one person takes on so many responsibilities, it inevitably creates bottlenecks and hampers responsiveness.

Moreover, administrators are often designated as tactical team leads, despite lacking hands-on expertise in that area. This forces reliance on staff who actually have the skills needed to lead each function, like facilities managers commanding facility teams. But core ICS principles require empowering autonomous leads who have relevant capabilities and experience.

These problems stem from a reluctance to break from ordinary school hierarchies during an emergency response. But effective ICS deployment demands prioritizing practical capabilities over titles or comfort levels with non-administrators in leadership roles.

To optimize ICS effectiveness, schools should adhere to two key guidelines:

1. Designate each staff member just one primary role and one backup role, the latter being higher in the command structure.
2. Prioritize assigning lead roles based on capability over seniority. Resist overload by siloing responsibilities to just top administrators.

Preventing role overload and misalignment of skills to roles is crucial for ICS functionality.

Getting Creative to Staff the School ICS

When discussing emergency role assignments, I often hear schools cite limited personnel as an obstacle to proper ICS staffing. This shortage stems from teachers being assigned to student supervision by default, leaving only a handful of non-teaching staff available for response roles.

While understandable during normal operations, this rigid approach is inefficient in emergencies. Schools must get creative with staff assignments to fully support ICS functions.

If students gather in a centralized assembly area, combining classes could reduce supervision needs. For instance, grades 4 and up could be grouped together with one teacher monitoring multiple classes. This frees up other teachers for critical roles, even command positions. Of course, appropriate staff-to-student ratios should still be maintained for younger ages.

Seeking input across staff is also important when assigning roles. Discuss needs and consult on assignments before finalizing the ICS chart. Leaving assignments open-ended allows for uncovering hidden talents too, like teachers who serve as volunteer firefighters. It also avoids issues like assigning PE teachers to medical roles without proper first-aid training.

With flexibility, inclusion, and creative thinking, schools can transform everyday faculty and staff into a highly capable ICS team when it matters most.

Sharpening School ICS Through Ongoing Training

Regular practice is key to effective ICS. The built-in structure lends itself to honing response skills.

I encourage schools to create a training cadence for tabletops, drills and FEMA courses. Start simple, then increase complexity over the school year, drawing from recent risk analyses.

Though challenging, excellent free resources exist:

FEMA offers both general and specialized ICS training materials.
The Department of Education and Homeland Security have resources tailored to school needs.
States and localities often have additional regional offerings as well.
Expert assistance is also available for building customized programs, from framework creation to hands-on training.

While difficult, cultivating ICS proficiency through continuous, evolving practice is worth the investment. It develops the muscle memory needed for rapid, coordinated response when it matters most.

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