Why Communication is Key When It Comes to School Emergency Response

Picture of Samantha Hoppe By Samantha Hoppe

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school emergency responseOn February 14 2018, the communities in Parkland, Florida were terrorized by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. As the families tragically mark the one the anniversary this month, many citizens across the country are still wondering how this happened and what can be done to help prevent.  While we’ll never have all the answers, official reports have been published detailing the events of that day. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission Report flags a myriad of issues across a wide spectrum, with the common theme of communication failures.

In an attempt to prevent future school shooting events, the report highlights communication problems that had a huge impact in how events unfolded. The Parkland shooting shocked the nation, especially for those concerned with improving student safety. In an incident like this, communication issues can literally be a matter of life or death.  

School Emergency Response Before an Incident

Formal training had not been provided to eight campus security roles at the high school when the shooting occurred. Codes were confused among staff. 22 Officer's radios not work according to reports. Preventable oversights such as these can be easily spotted and solved when schools and safety professionals collaborate.

Your school or town most likely already has policies in place addressing emergency preparations. Collaboration between schools & public safety officials is crucial, and not just when they are in the midst of an event. It is important to pinpoint spots where public safety stakeholders coordinate emergency planning together. These stakeholders include both school and safety leaders, including school officials, law enforcement, and 9-1-1.  Despite the importance of communication in school safety, it is not always factored into plans for before, during and after an emergency.

The best people to guide school safety preparations are the very people who will be responding to the incident. Having a first responder or professional included in a school’s emergency planning can help provide insights that may be missed by schools.

How Schools & Public Safety Can Collaborate:

  • Establish a line of communication: reach out to town leaders to learn about if there are any policies currently in place.
  • Dig deeper: What policies should the school be aware of? Are there any technologies being used that the school can take advantage of?
  • Ask for suggestions: How can this plan be more comprehensive? When should (and should not) notify 9-1-1?
  • Get in touch with your local 9-1-1 call center: Invite officials to meetings with school safety committees.
    • Include them in safety drills
    • Meet the first responders who would be on-site during an incident.
    • Provide 9-1-1 with a layout of the school grounds. 

Convey Plans to Parents

In addition to schools and public safety connecting, parents should also be looped into the school’s emergency plans. Keeping parents informed prevents 9-1-1 centers from being flooded with questions, allowing them to focus on the emergency at hand. Informing parents also helps prevent parents from unintentionally getting in the way of emergency responders or putting themselves in harm’s way. Misinformation is also likely to spread if parents are left in the dark.

Details to provide parents:

  • Provide a guide to parents at the beginning of the school year
  • Where to looks for emergency plan updates
  • The pre-designated location to pick up their children in case of evacuation
  • Keep them informed through continual communication (text, email, calls, etc)

Anonymous Tip Texting

Students, parents and staff can be the eyes and ears of your community. Having a private, anonymous, and secure way for community members to report their concerns can potentially prevent some emergencies, like active shooters. This reporting can also help with day to day concerns, like bullying or drugs on school grounds.

In order for this reporting to effective, it’s critical that these tips be submitted:

  • Anonymously - In a recent survey, 72% of young people said they would be more likely to report an incident anonymously (versus 61% of older respondents).
  • Via Text - Texting allows a two-way conversation so the school can follow up with the tipster for more information.

Schools and safety professionals need some way to hear directly from the people they protect because the reports provide invaluable insight into community happenings.

During and After an Emergency

There is not much that can be done to correct any oversights when an actual emergency is in progress. When a school is faced with an emergency, 9-1-1 is in the best position to act as a command center. This is done by instantly notifying when an emergency occurs.

9-1-1 is better enabled to assist if they have a layout of the school available. A person calling during an emergency may not be able to safety speak or explain where exactly first responders are needed.

Technology & Safety Communication

Reporting the initial emergency to 9-1-1 is crucial. However, there are many tools and technology available that help school staff not just report incidents, but also indicate what kind of emergency is happening while informing other staff members.

Mobile panic buttons solutions can instantly enable 9-1-1 with key information like caller’s location, incident type and school details. A notification can be instantly sent to a designated list of contacts, which helps keep people informed and prevents 9-1-1 from getting overwhelmed with calls about the same incident. An instant alert can also mobilize people on the ground of the incident by informing them with crucial details and which procedures they should follow.

69% of active shooter incidents last less than five minutes and officers arrive before the end of the incident only 31% of the time. In cases like this, instantly notifying on-site personnel when a 9-1-1 call is placed can help provide more security until first responders arrive on the scene.

Hopefully, the staff within a school will already know their school’s designated plan of action for each type of incident. They need to be alerted of the initial incident so everyone is informed. School Resource Officers are often not in the best position to alert staff, so it is essential to have a communication management system in place

Related Case Study: Helping officials communicate, inform and mobilize.

Communication & Next Steps

General instructions for what to do after in an incident occurs should be covered in the school’s emergency plan in place. To help keep students safe, onsite staff needs to be provided with frequent updates and check-ins. Some emergencies will require special instruction, but there should be a general plan established that is accessible to school staff and students, 9-1-1, emergency responders and parents. It is also vital to communicate any changes to the usual plan so no one is left out of the loop.

In Conclusion, Communicate.

Communication plays a massive role in all stages of school emergency response. The grim collection of communication missteps related to the February 14 massacre includes many failures in safety preparedness that experts say are typical of situations in schools nationwide.

“The omissions that were in Parkland, sadly, could be found in the great majority of public secondary schools across the country,” said Joe Eradi, according to The Washington Post. Eradi is a safety consultant who was superintendent in Newtown, Conn., following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now more than ever, schools need a comprehensive communication plan for safety.

How can schools identify if they have the same communication shortcomings, and what can be done to remedy these problems?

Spotting oversights and failures is easier in the aftermath of an emergency, but it’s much harder to pinpoint specific shortcomings before they occur. Communication plays a large role in the success or failure of an emergency response, so take the time now to identify communication hurdles that may exist in your school safety plans and procedures.

Download the eBook to learn how schools and safety professionals can work together to identify and fix these common communication blind spots.

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Written by Samantha Hoppe

Sam Hoppe is Rave's Digital Marketing Specialist. She works closely with the Rave team on emails, blogs, and the website. Favorite topics include state and local government issues, emergency management, current events and feel-good stories. A New Jersey native turned Bostonian, you can find Sam exploring new bars and restaurants or enjoying live shows across the city.

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