Through the experience of supporting schools throughout the U.S. and now the world, Joffe has learned a thing or two about emergency management and school crisis response. In a series of presentations we’ve given, some in partnership with leaders from schools around CA, we’ve shared some of these lessons. In this post, several key features of fire preparedness and response have been assembled and condensed down for you into a comprehensive resource you can use to ensure that your school is prepared to deal with similar situations going forward.
The Tenets of Emergency Response
Universally recognized across the schools represented was the need for a strong, solid emergency response plan. Most leaders said that while they did have a plan in place, there were several challenges that arose as the situation unfolded that were completely unexpected, leading to a strain on the prepared resources. Some had issues with evacuation and reconvening safely. Some had severe structural damage and so had nowhere to reconvene. It seemed that a shared experience was a realization of the importance of community and having a network to rely on during a crisis.
Considering the experiences shared, there were a few core tenets that contribute to a better, more complete emergency response.
One school had serious structural damage to deal with immediately following the fire. They were evacuated out of their facilities, and so had very limited access to electricity, internet, and phone service. This was especially difficult for them, as they housed international students from more than ten different countries.
They were luckily able to use a cell phone hotspot and a laptop to send out update messages to their community of parents, students, and teachers, but this did highlight a problem that they hadn’t anticipated.
To effectively communicate with your community:
- Establish a command center.
- Reach out to your immediate community first. Having a pre-established emergency notification system on a wide scale will reduce anxiety and uncertainty during an emergency. This can be done via an emergency notification systemsuch as Titan HST.
- Remember to reach out beyond your email address book. This can be done through an outgoing phone message with important details such as the school’s current status of operation, contact information for heads of staff, and a tentative schedule for recovery. You should also be posting on your social media accounts, preferably with a single message across platforms that is clear, concise, and leaves room for conversation.
Communication is the best way to build confidence in your community.
Not only are your faculty and staff important when it comes to ensuring the easiest recovery possible, but so is your wider community. As mentioned above, a solid, pre-established method of communication with your community is vitally important to the health and wellbeing of your school in the event of an emergency of any kind.
An active community can be the difference between true detriment and a momentary setback in operations. What matters most is the level of engagement and support your community provides during the recovery process.
It’s important to make sure that you are celebrating the ties that bind your community together. According to one school, which was at the heart of five wildfires in the same season and suffered hard losses in property across the community, though it made feel too early to start bringing people together, the sooner you start reconnecting and creating a sense of hope, the better off you’ll be in the long run. Their learnings stress finding out what you can do to help.
Each of the schools found comfort in sharing their stories, and have since learned that building a network between themselves and other resources in the area to form a community that responds together is an invaluable resource for the future.
These learnings also stress the importance of providing the necessary support during and after a crisis. Some have developed a go-to mantra was that no one gets left behind in the decision-making process, and every action his school took was to be done with the health and wellbeing of the larger community in mind.
Another leader we spoke with agrees on this point, as his school became a community sanctuary in the wake of the fires when many people had nowhere else to go. They provided a place for families to reconvene and provided resources for grieving students.
A similar setup at yet another school, in Santa Rosa, allowed firefighters to rest on school grounds while they tried to bring the fires under control, providing a serious morale boost. The firefighters were so grateful for the help that they took up a collection for the faculty and staff that had lost homes, showing exactly how this wider community support can benefit everyone involved and become a healing cycle.
With this sense of community support comes the task of learning what needs are to be met in what order after the crisis. These needs fall into two basic categories: immediate and long-term. They also fall into the rule of sevens: what do you need to provide for the first seven seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years after the emergency?
Immediate needs are things that should be handled within the first seven seconds, minutes, hours, and days after the fire. This includes:
- Having a solid, well-practiced evacuation plan.
- Knowing exactly when and where everyone will reconvene after evacuations.
- Finding shelter and aide for anyone who may have been injured or lost property in the fire.
- Having a plan for food, water, and basic utilities (including electricity and internet access).
Your team should not be in the dark for any part of the process, from the critical moments of the initial reaction to the shift to long-term focus.
Next comes the long-term reaction to the crisis, in the weeks, months, and years following the event. This includes:
- Knowing what supplies you have and where you can get more.
- Having widespread communication in your inner community and beyond.
- Having a plan of action to continue lessons, either in a secondary location or virtually.
- Being able to continue paying your employees through a redundancy system in case of the physical loss of checks or the loss of access to your normal payment systems.
You should also prioritize the mental and emotional health of your faculty, especially your teachers. They need to be able to get themselves to a solid, healthy mental and emotional state so that they can continue to help others.
Finally, it’s incredibly important to work together as school systems in times of crisis. We recommend meeting regularly with other leaders to create a system for communal reaction and the pooling of critical resources. What schools are willing to lend their property to those that are in most danger of losing access to their facilities? What schools are willing to exchange teachers, health coordinators, and other professionals should some members of staff become unavailable? Open communication between schools can mean that critical resources like this are easily accessible at all times.
It’s also important to work with other local businesses in order to secure an action plan for what to do during an emergency. This means establishing predefined relationships with hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses to ensure access to housing, food, transportation, and other necessary resources. Reach out to these places in your community to see if they are willing to establish this contingency plan, and provide them with a Memo of Understanding (MoU) which details exactly what is expected of each party.
Emergency situations are frequently the clearest ways to highlight the deficiencies of leadership, but also the strengths and dedication to it as well. A well-prepared community is a community that retains hope, and when the world seems to crash around you, hope is as vital as air.
For more information about emergency response and coordination, please reach out to Joffe Emergency Services here. We’ll be happy to help your school be prepared for crises like this so that you can resume education and community more quickly!