Tabletop Exercise 2: Worsening Odor Leads to Student Asthma Attack

An unpleasant smell triggers a student's asthma and causes a teacher's eyes to water and nose to burn. What would you do?
Published: October 29, 2020

Whether working at K-12 schools, colleges or hospitals, scenario-based training exercises, often referred to as tabletop exercises, are an effective way to improve campus safety and security. They bring together a wide variety of stakeholders and test a school or campus’ emergency plans. It forces people to think without having to be in a real situation where it might be too late.

“A tabletop exercise is a really great get-your-feet-wet kind of way to practice,” says Paul Timm, vice president of Facility Engineering Associates, who has led tabletop exercises at several Campus Safety Conferences. “It is where we can gather the relevant stakeholders around a table and then throw out a scenario and ask those stakeholders to tell us how they would respond given that scenario. We don’t want to fail during a real situation, we want to fail during a simulation, a drill, or an exercise of some kind so that we can identify our vulnerabilities and decide how we want to prioritize those.”

If you’re looking to conduct tabletop exercises for your campus but aren’t sure where to start, Guy Bliesner, an analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security (IOSSS), provided Campus Safety with several incidents that actually happened at Idaho schools and how administrators responded. Each scenario sets the scene for the day — some details you might not necessarily think make a difference, but they do — and describes the event in detail, along with the actual outcome of the scenario and findings from an after-action review. They are designed to be completed in 10-15 minutes as part of an administrative meeting.

Scenario #2

  • Season: Mid-fall
  • Day: Tuesday
  • Time: 9:56 A.M.
  • Weather: Overcast with intermittent rain
  • Temperature: 43 degrees
  • School type: Elementary (K-5)
  • Event: You noticed a faintly unpleasant smell upon your entrance to the school. The smell becomes much worse throughout the morning. You send an assistant teacher to report that one of your students is suffering a severe asthma attack. As you enter the hall, your eyes begin to water and your nose burns. What steps do you take?

How the School Handled the Situation

The principal issued an immediate evacuation using the fire alarm system. Students left the building in the most expedient manner, most failing to take the coats that were available to them in the classroom. The principal called the district office to notify them of the evacuation and the reason for leaving the building. Buses are not dispatched at this time. Both fire and law enforcement respond to the alarm and are onsite eight minutes later.

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The student with severe asthma is treated by arriving EMS. Students are beginning to get cold and a light rain has started. The special education staff spontaneously begin to move eleven medically fragile students into staff cars for shelter. The rain intensifies. Smaller students are becoming dangerously chilled. The school is now approximately 14 minutes into the incident.

The fire captain decides the school cannot be reoccupied until the gas company and maintenance department have determined the source of the smell and resolved the issue. The principal requests buses and is told it will be at least 20 minutes before they will arrive. Some parents begin to arrive, and some students are “leaking” away without any formal record-keeping or accountability.

The decision is made to move to a church building four blocks away. However, no one had a key to the facility and prior approval had not been obtained. During the movement, the principal is attempting to contact church officials. The special needs students are transported in staff cars. The walk to the church takes about twelve minutes and students continue to leak away as they pass their own homes. It has now been 26 minutes since the evacuation.

A church official has been reached and seven more minutes pass prior to his arrival. Approximately 70% of the student body remains and gain access to the church for shelter. The first buses begin to arrive at the school unaware that the students have been moved. The bus drivers find out from the first responders on site that the students are at the church and begin to move in that direction. Buses arrive at the church and students are loaded for transport to another district school. The total incident time is now 41 minutes.

Students are unloaded into the gymnasium of the middle school and parents are notified to retrieve their students. There is no formal process and accountability is not provided. Overall, the incident lasted one hour and 51 minutes.

After-Action Review Findings

To be most effective, says IOSSS, an after-action review (AAR) of the response should be completed as part of the process. Check out Part 1 to see questions that should be used to review a response.

In this case, a number of procedural changes were made following the AAR:

  • Evacuation procedure was changed to include students taking their coats when readily available.
  • District response procedure was changed to provide for coordination with and mobilization of school buses as part of any unplanned evacuation of a school.
  • The use of staff vehicles as shelter and potential transport for medically fragile students is formalized and a form for parental authorization is developed (this serves as both informed consent and liability coverage).
  • Off-campus relocation sites are identified and MOUs are developed and executed to provide for both access (keys) and use.
  • Parent/student reunification processes and procedures are developed to provide for positive accountability of all students and assure and document only authorized persons receive students in the process.
  • Mass notification processes for parents are reviewed and enhanced.

Among many things, this scenario emphasizes the importance of having thorough evacuation and reunification plans at the ready to both keep students safe and provide liability coverage.

Check Out Some of These Other Tabletop Exercises

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series