The Emergency Response Team Roadmap for Your School

An emergency response team is a great way to improve emergency preparedness and keep your school safe.

School officials can also reach out to nearby school districts to see what information they’re willing to share. Getting an overview of each person’s responsibilities can be a great start to creating your own teams. PPS officials, including Casselberry and District Chief of School Police George Brown, have gone to see other school district heads discuss their responses to emergencies to learn from the experiences.

PPS also receives input from medical first responders in the city and police agencies. The Red Cross offers a free “Ready Rating” system that schools can use for different types of assessments. The Salvation Army, as well as local health and fire departments, are also great resources.

LPS began forming its emergency response plans right before the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and then in 2002 each school’s emergency response team received National Incident Management training. Emergency training is crucial for every member of the team.

“There’s not a one size fits all approach to emergency response, so when you’re analyzing all this stuff you have to ask what would work best for you,” Grace says. “Every year we add little amendments or idea
s. We’re at version 2.5 right now, but you also don’t want to revise everything all the time and confuse everybody either.”

Of course even with help, there are challenges to formulating an effective emergency plan. Some schools, particularly in rural areas, may struggle to find secure reunification areas. Grace partnered with all the churches in his area to have them double as reunification zones.

“There are 47 churches around us, so we teach our kids, ‘If there’s an emergency and you’re fleeing you can always go to the nearest church and they’ll know what to do,'” Grace explains.

Setting aside time for emergency drilling is another challenge. Grace lets officials from each school in the district select times to complete two hours of emergency drilling every semester. He says the flexibility decreases pushback from officials and minimizes disruption in academics. Selecting the right technology to complement your emergency response plan will also take time and in most cases require extensive background research.

Emergency Preparedness At Last

The reason the background research and the sometimes-complicated implementations are worth it is because school officials will rest easy knowing they are in good shape to handle whatever comes their way. These days, every school at PPS has an emergency response team and each staff member holds a flip chart outlining emergency procedures. The Department of School Safety and district personnel work closely and collaboratively with school leaders, local emergency responders, community agencies and other partners. Lane continues to be impressed by her staff’s positive attitude.

“The real resource allocation for the teams wasn’t money, it was time. I just can’t say enough about how appreciate I am of them,” Lane says. “The people who we asked to do this, not one of them said ‘That’s not my job’ or ‘I’m too busy.’ That’s what’s so special about our staff, is we have very dedicated people who do a fabulous job just jumping up and doing what needs to be done.”

Even with strong mechanisms in place, however, the district is constantly refining its methods and learning with every emergency’s after-incident report. One small thing officials recently decided on was getting credentials for the staff and faculty members that need to get on campus during an incident. The badges let police know who’s allowed in school buildings in certain situations and who’s not.

“With any incident, it’s about reacting quickly so that kids feel safe and staff members feel safe,” Casselberry says. “You want as swift a response as possible, and so we’re always evolving to better achieve those goals.”

Part of that evolution involves emergency training and drilling. Throughout each school year, every school performs various safety drills including fire, bus evacuation, severe weather, building evacuation and lockdown. Several members of the emergency response team are also receiving ALICE Training for active shooter response. Lane says officials also analyze incident responses at other districts to glean lessons.

“You don’t have to learn from your own experiences, you can learn from others too,” Lane says. “It’s okay for us to make mistakes as well, but I don’t like to make the same one twice.”

LPS also has a robust emergency response team at each of its schools. In total, the teams encompass 145 people working in three layers of safety. The top level involves an integration of school security and mental health personnel. Working together weekly, the team members review threat assessments and discipline reports looking for particularly troubling or repeat behaviors. That system was formed as part of a response to the shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013.

The second layer is based on FEMA’s national School Emergency Operations Plan. Each school has a team comprised of an incident commander (usually the principal), an incident reporter, an operations person, a finance person, section leaders and more. The teams go through tabletop drills twice a year in addition to reviewing every response they carry out.

The third layer is only on the school district level. The incident commander there is the superintendent. Grace works predominantly at this level, which operates more in a supervisory role. But the security apparatus in the district goes even further than those three layers, Grace says.

“Everybody in the district has a security responsibility, right down to the students,” Grace says. “That idea makes us all more secure because people feel more comfortable speaking out. People are resources, so you want to direct all of your internal resources to respond to emergencies.”

The school district’s expansive network of security personnel has had a truly incredible impact. Grace can tell countless stories of people on every level helping to mitigate threats. One time a team member noticed a man hanging around a school bus stop six blocks from campus. The employee reported the observation, and it turned out to be a predator preparing a student for possible molestation.

PPS has also used its teams to successfully respond to emergencies, including a 30-student brawl that forced the school to lockdown when parents arrived to pick up their children. Such incidents would be overwhelming for any single official, but having a trained team of people, each with their own specific responsibilities, makes things far more manageable.

“People working together is what helps keep students safe,” Lane says. “I totally believe that.”

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About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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