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Crossed Signals

Six ways to ensure your emergency notification plan will work when it counts.

In May 22, 2013, Mayville High School and Mayville Middle School went into lockdown just as the school day was ending. A concerned citizen had reported a man with a gun near the schools; the community was quickly engulfed with fear and speculation. And while the "gun" turned out to be a harmless airsoft gun, the lockdown exposed serious glitches in the Wisconsin school district's emergency plan. Some parents didn't receive notification of the lockdown until 25 minutes after the message was sent via text and phone call. The district administrator, school principals, and emergency responders were unable to communicate effectively, so the "all clear" message (and subsequent release of students) was handled differently at each school, infuriating several parents.

"To have this happen was so humbling," says district administrator Patricia Antony. "We were way out in front in terms of crisis planning, but because of the simplest thing—our plan relied on cell phones for communication, and cell phone traffic seemed to be jammed during the lockdown—we had no idea, at the time, that half of this stuff was going on."

Mayville School District isn't alone in realizing the importance of communication in emergency planning. In Bakersfield, California, parents of students in the Kern High School District became upset when they were not immediately notified of a lockdown triggered by a small explosion.

Elsewhere, weather-related events emphasized the need for timely communication with both parents and emergency personnel. In Moore, Oklahoma, parents were frantic to get news of their children after a deadly tornado. And Superstorm Sandy stressed the communications capabilities of schools up and down the East Coast.

As Antony found out, true emergencies can tax communications systems in a way that's nearly impossible to imagine. Effective communication, though, is key during a crisis.

Keep these points in mind as you're creating your crisis plan:
Use multiple modes of communication. Mayville SD's emergency plan relied heavily on cell phones. The district administrator was to contact the chief of police via cell phone, communicate with school principals via cell, and send text and voice messages to parents' cell phones. No one anticipated the fact that high demand would essentially eliminate cell phones as a reliable means of communication.

The district now plans to use two-way radios to communicate both internally and with emergency responders. It is also installing two private, dedicated landlines as a backup to the radio system, and will share the numbers with the local police and fire departments.

Jim Polansky, superintendent of Huntington School District in New York, often sends "the same message out five different ways," he says. His Long Island district primarily relies on an automated call system that sends phone, e-mail, and text messages to parents; he also uses the district's Facebook and Twitter pages to communicate information.

During Superstorm Sandy, sending messages via multiple modes was essential. "Some people were not able to get messages one way but were able to get it another way," Polansky says. He also asked families who received messages to pass the information on to other families.

Create a command center. Antony planned to handle crises from her office; the lockdown taught her that being in proximity to emergency personnel may be a better option. In the future, the superintendent, police chief, and fire chief will coordinate emergency response and communication from the same centralized location.

Consider having a backup location as well. Electric power was out throughout Huntington SD during Sandy; Polansky had to drive nearly 30 minutes to find a location with power so he could effectively communicate with parents. He has since added that location to his district's emergency plan.

Manage the media. Before Antony even finished sending the lockdown notification to parents, a news station had called her office. Soon, "every line was tied up with the media calling," she says. "Every time I picked up the phone thinking it was a principal or the police chief, it was, ‘Hi, you're live on the air.'"

Hunter Frederick, president of Frederick & Associates, a crisis management and public relations firm, encourages school administrators to politely hold off the media. "The biggest misconception many people have is that the media is your friend," Frederick explains. "In the past, schools relied a lot on the media to communicate to parents. Unfortunately, the way the media is set up now, they can induce panic."

Appoint one person to handle media inquiries—and delay answering any inquiries until you are absolutely sure of the information. "Your designated person should let reporters know that they will get them the info, but that they want to make sure it's 100 percent accurate before sharing it," Frederick says. "When you're dealing with students and kids, media personnel tend to be very understanding."

Be clear and decisive. Emotions run high in emergency situations, and that heightened emotional state makes it difficult for people to communicate (or receive) information effectively. "When I went back and reviewed my emergency communication, I realized I was unclear," Antony says. "One message said, ‘The crisis is over. The buses will be releasing within 30 minutes. Parents are also welcome to pick up their children.' " The result: great confusion. Parents didn't know if they should return home to wait for their children, or go to the school to retrieve them.

Short, crystal clear communications are called for in times of crisis.

Establish a waiting area for parents. When Mayville parents received word of the lockdown, many rushed toward the schools in hopes of learning more about their children's safety. Fire and police personnel shooed them away from the area and to a nearby church. "Unbeknownst to me, there were 700 parents there," Antony says. Future emergency plans will include a parent waiting area. "We will put a district spokesperson there," Antony says. "That person will have a radio connected to me and will be giving constant updates to the parents."

Review emergency communications plans annually. "Your emergency plan has to be a living, breathing document," Polansky says. "You have to pick it apart every year and make changes in light of new technologies, situations that could develop, and things you've experienced during the year." The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities has a host of federal, state, and local plans posted on its site (ncef.org).  

 

—Fall 2013—

 

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