6 Tips for Natural Disaster Planning for Schools

Ensuring your school’s emergency plans cover natural disasters — no matter where you live — is vital to mitigating damage and loss of life.

6 Tips for Natural Disaster Planning for Schools

Photo: Vitalii Vodolazskyi, Adobe Stock

History is riddled with the tragic stories of cities, communities, organizations, and complexes that experienced devastation wrought by a natural disaster of some kind. In many (or even most) of these instances, those entities experienced damage and destruction that could have been avoided or at least lessened if they had put an effective emergency plan in place. That’s the nature of emergency plans — if you wait until a disaster proves that an emergency plan was necessary, it’s too late.

Therefore, it’s never too early to put thorough emergency preparations in place for your campus or organization. If you don’t already have a complete emergency operations plan finalized and effectively communicated to your campus and stakeholders, or if you’re not sure whether yours would be effective in a natural disaster emergency, it’s time to evaluate your campus’s current emergency response strategy.

The Process of Creating an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP)

Emergency plans vary extremely widely based on a number of different characteristics. With greater complexity and more stakeholders comes more contingencies and moving parts to consider. For this reason, it’s very important that your emergency plan creation process addresses the many different factors that would come into play in the event of an actual emergency or natural disaster.

There are a number of lenses that should be utilized in turn when drafting an emergency plan to make sure you are considering all complications as much as you possibly can. Considerations will be different for hospitals than they would be for schools. Your geographical location, surrounding community type, availability of external support services, campus size and layout, technological components and related considerations, the range of staff types you have available to you, number of implicated stakeholders, communication channels of choice, and many more factors all must be considered when creating an EOP for your organization or campus. We’ll explore a few of those filters in more detail here.

It’s also important to note: Don’t put any of these considerations too far out of reach after you’ve scrutinized them once. An EOP is an evolving, complex set of protocols. As you adjust and refine it from each vantage point, be aware that you should revisit previous considerations as you advance to make sure a change made to accommodate one perspective didn’t disrupt another or present a problem elsewhere.

Thinking Through Potential Natural Disasters That Could Occur

To create an effective EOP that will mitigate potential damage due to a natural disaster, it’s obviously important to have a concrete idea of what natural disasters are possible and likely. It’s important to distinguish between natural happenings that are expected in your area or at least not entirely out of the realm of possibility in an average year, and those that would fit squarely in the category of “natural disasters.” Even in the realm of emergency preparations when it’s imperative to “expect the unexpected,” it’s a good idea to consider the types of disasters more likely to befall your area. If your campus is located in a mountainous area, make sure you have a solid avalanche or heavy snowfall plan in place. A hurricane response protocol isn’t nearly as pressing. And obviously, if you’re located in a temperate coastal area, your priorities should understandably be the opposite.

To do this effectively, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You may be able to find examples of EOPs for similar (or similarly located) organizations to yours that can provide excellent context and ideas for creating your own. They may be published on the internet, accessible in library archives, or available through professional associations or partnerships. Learning from other organizations and examples of EOPs can provide excellent context and ideas for when you create your own.

Looking at a few different versions can also give you a feel for what is standard practice, and what creative additions or adaptations might be helpful or applicable in your particular context. Though this practice can help inform any part of your EOP, it can be especially important for the process of making sure you’re covering all the natural disaster types your area might see.

Cataloging Your Stakeholders, Assets and Infrastructure

Creating an effective EOP first requires an intimate understanding of your moving pieces – the people and property you’re responsible for keeping safe, the assets and resources you have available to work with, and the nature of the infrastructure available both on your own campus and in surrounding areas. University students, on average, would be quite mobile and independent. Nursing home residents, on the other hand, would not.

An EOP at a university campus would need to look very different from that of a senior living facility. A wildfire would affect a complex that is primarily wood-built very differently than it would affect a complex built primarily of concrete or stone.

For most EOPs, this step should involve completing a write-up of some kind that includes these details about your campus in a document. How many people engage with your facility? What are their use patterns and reasons for being there? Does your campus include residences (e.g. college dorm buildings)? Where do people congregate? How are spaces distributed and controlled? What security protocol does access entail? How do people arrive at your campus?

It’s important to organize these kinds of details in a manner that allows a response crew or someone managing a disaster response to quickly find and know what they need to know in order to respond most effectively. Detail as much as you can and organize it intuitively with clear sections and headings for quick digestion. Having this kind of information detailed and organized can sometimes mean the difference between lives saved and lost — between tragedy avoided or befallen.

Communication Channels for Disseminating Your Emergency Response Information

An EOP does no one any good if it sits in a desk drawer and is never seen by any of the individuals on a campus where a natural disaster may someday strike. They must be effectively shared with the right decision-makers and posted, taught, and disseminated in such a way that when something happens, people on campus know how to respond. This can be broken into three categories.

Before an emergency is when the work of not only designing but communicating an EOP is the most important. There are plenty of strategies and best practice ideas out there to help you get started with communicating an EOP to your campus and stakeholders. Choosing your tactics for getting the word out should be influenced by your population, the type of campus, how traffic and use patterns flow through the facility, and more.

During an emergency you may or may not have time or ability to communicate with your stakeholders. This is something that should be thought through as you design your EOP and something you take extra measures to preserve and facilitate in the event of a disaster. What communication methods will be available during a natural disaster? Which might be compromised? What might need to be installed or made available in case conventional communication channels are knocked out?

After an emergency, communication channels might be damaged or unavailable for one reason or another. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s important to give thought to how effective response, rescue, and cleanup efforts can take place if communication frameworks or abilities are compromised.

Practice Makes Perfect: Conducting Drills, Walkthroughs and Scenarios

Once an EOP has been designed, it can do infinitely better for the individuals on a campus if it is rehearsed and regularly engaged with so as to make it familiar and even second nature in the event of an actual emergency. Basketball coaches don’t expect that assigning their players a book or handout will be adequate to help them perform perfect offense or defense. While that coach must deliver content first (just like teaching a drill before the team tries it), to actually prepare adequately and be able to perform a desired action requires practice.

EOPs should always include some element of drill or practice to make sure they are actually implemented in the event of a natural disaster. This may look like a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly initiative depending on the needs of your campus. However it fits best, make sure that the schedule you implement for practicing your EOP is adequate to prepare your campus for a true emergency.

Continue Learning and Refining

Once you complete an EOP and have it signed off by your campus decision-makers, the work isn’t done. It’s important to regularly revisit your EOP to make sure it stays up to date and in line with best practices. Your campus will develop and change.

Your personnel may shift over time; your assets will change; and the industry will learn. It’s important to continue improving your EOP and your dissemination strategy. It can always be better. And prioritizing strong EOP and EOP management practices could be the difference between preparedness and disaster.

EOPs should always include some element of drill or practice to make sure they are actually implemented in the event of a natural disaster. This may look like a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly initiative depending on the needs of your campus. However it fits best, make sure that the schedule you implement for practicing your EOP is adequate to prepare your campus for a true emergency.

Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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