Declaring an emergency requires preparation, collaboration, practice, and more. But what about after 9-1-1 is notified? This is where check-ins, reunification and incident timelines play key roles. Accounting for individual safety, triaging resources and providing urgent updates does not happen automatically. After an incident occurs, follow up steps may need to be taken. To understand what needs to happen in the direct aftermath of a crisis, it is beneficial to look at the emergency preparation process step-by-step.
The Timeline of an Emergency
The first step in any emergency should be alerting 9-1-1. Administrators and on-site security are the first to know of an incident and can coordinate a response. In order to facilitate a coordinated and controlled response to an emergency incident, the first function of an emergency alert system should always be to contact 9-1-1. Emergency alert system like a panic button solution can do this quickly and reliably. This alert system should be taught and practiced with on-site staff, so they are comfortable activating it live when an incident occurs.
Serious problems may occur if an emergency alert system does not involve 9-1-1 from the very start of an emergency. An incident may lose coordination and control quickly if 9-1-1 is not looped in as soon as an emergency is declared. This is what happened during the 2018 Santa Fe Junior High School shooting. A teacher pulled the fire alarm after hearing gunshots from a neighboring classroom, adding to an already chaotic scene. This not only caused mass confusion of top of what was occurring, but also delayed the first responders because they were not the ones properly notified at first.
The other benefit of having 9-1-1 first in your emergency alert system is that you help prevent 9-1-1 dispatchers being flooded with calls from the community. These are calls related to the emergency incident but that lack new or critical information. Concerned parents can overwhelm dispatch centers with calls that only slow down the process.
Here's a visual timeline of an incident:
After an 9-1-1 is notified and the emergency is declared, check-ins are the next step. This stage is where the who, what, and where of the incident need to be made known to 9-1-1 to evaluate how severe the incident is and what resources are needed. Victims of the incident are now aware of the crisis and are trying to figure out what to do, how to get help, and where they can go to be safe. For schools, those questions have hopefully been answered by running safety drills. Even with practice, quick communication is critical with faculty, parents, and first responders.
People are likely confused during this sensitive time, so all communications need to be clear and concise, so there is no ambiguity during this stressful time. Check-in communications are a wellness status check-to those you protect. Check-ins must be timely and come from a point of authority. This is an “all clear?” message surveys the status of those impacted by the crisis. Technology can help streamline this process and messaging. Pre-loaded status check-messages accessible by mobile phone can help save lifesaving minutes. The faster you can collect and organize responses can help optimize response resources post-crisis.
For reunification to be successful and accurate, people need a way to respond to the point of authority that is checking in with them. If they need additional assistance, getting that information communicated as quickly as possible can help save a life. A method to provide individuals with follow up instructions can help people when they need it most.
Emergency managers need to have a clear view of who requires attention, and who is unaccounted for. Someone that needs help can let the right people know in a timely manner by answering a check-in survey of their current status. If done with a mobile application like a panic button, emergency mangers can instantly see responses as they are completed, learn who needs what help, and triage resources. This provides the emergency manager an overview of where to send help and determine areas of most need. Those who don’t reply become a priority for concern and can be flagged for follow up. This stage also involves keeping inventory of individuals, who is where and in what room, and who is in control. Getting a pulse on the incident during check-in helps how to optimize resources in a crisis.
Check-ins not only solicit information, but can also provide instructions. As emergency managers gather and evaluate check-in insights, victims can receive instructions and updates. After a crisis on any type, you don’t want those you protect to be wondering “what am I supposed to do?”. Conducting drills and having educational emergency plan resources should help prepare everyone with the basic information they need to know before an emergency. Updates and next steps may be necessary to provide live right after an emergency in declared. Checking in accounts for your community, allocate resources, and determines who still needs help in the next phase.
If there are contacts that failed to check-in or reported an unsafe status, the reunification process will then start to locate and help them. The definition and process of reunification can vary by area, organization type, or stakeholders involved. In the K-12 space, many schools consider everything post-emergency to be a part of the reunification process. Reunification is the final step in incident timeline and occurs separately from the emergency.
Reunification is the process of moving individuals from the care of first responders to being properly accounted and cared for. Schools are focused on getting students back into the care of their guardian, but the concept can be applied to the post-emergency plan of any organization. In any situation, the reunification stage is far removed from the incident itself. It needs to be a systematic process like all steps of emergency preparedness, but the logistics are far removed from the actual emergency.
Successful planning and implementation requires strong relationships with local government and crisis response agencies. Community emergency management and response agencies should be consulted during planning to promote a coordinated response to evacuations. The I Love U Guys foundation, which is the school safety protocol used in Colorado, provides useful framework for teachers and staff to respond to emergency situations. According to their Standard Reunification Method guide, reunification guide, “Plan documents should be immune or partially immune to Open Records Acts because there are specific tactics, emergency procedures and contact information involved. Consultation with district legal or the State Attorney General’s office may be warranted.”
Determining a location for reunification is one of the first steps for creating a strong plan. FEMA recommends the following criteria for reunification locations:
- Safely accessible by bus
- Has capacity to evacuate everyone potentially involved
- Has appropriate accommodations and is adequate for the needs of people with disabilities or special needs.
- The facilities are safe and include basic needs like shelter, access to restrooms, and water.
- Sufficient parking
- Sufficient number of entry/exit points
- Ability to utilize the organization’s communication systems on site. This ensures that the system is capable of operation between the district office, the sending location, and the reunification site.
Reunification happen hours after an emergency is declared and can also take several hours to complete in some situations. During the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, students weren’t reunited with their guardians until approximately 6:30 pm, 4 hours after initial shots were fired and students began evacuating. While this was an extreme case, incident timelines show that reunification happens at a distinctly different time in the emergency management process.
Reunification occurs far out from the actual emergency. It includes separate tools, functions and preparation. Because of this, it is recommended that reunification should be separate from the initial emergency stages that require the primary attention and focus. However, post-emergency planning should not be neglected. It is still a critical part of an emergency response and requires a prepared transparent plan. It is only necessary major emergencies, not for everyday incidents that most commonly occur. Medical incidents occur daily at school and require incident planning, but not reunification.
Internal notifications allow you to organize help from onsite resources and avoid confusion caused by silos during both check-ins and reunification stages. Staff assist is one tool that allows employees to connect with each other. This includes “All Clear” messages or updates on ambulance arrival. Custom messages allow administrators to communicate a unique need or follow up on earlier messages. Staff may also need to spread information disseminated during the emergency that involved 9-1-1. Communications surrounding unaccounted for individuals needs to be addressed and planned for. With an internal communication system, staff can work together to keep their community safe and accounted for.
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