Among the first things school officials should do if a crisis such as the Columbine High School shooting erupts is call the Federal Aviation Administration, a California state task force advises.
It’s not the sort of thing that might come to mind in an emergency, the task force acknowledged. But the FAA controls the airspace, and unless the FAA acts, news helicopters can fill the skies and impede police and rescue efforts.
“As soon as the news media learns of a disaster, they send their helicopters and it’s the last thing you’ll need to gain control of the situation,” said Capt. James Carmody of Port Huron, Mich., whose department thwarted a potentially disastrous shooting. He said the noise alone makes it difficult for people to hear.
Counter-intuitively, school officials may also need to quickly cut automatic emergency systems like fire alarms and sprinklers. That’s so emergency personnel can hear each other, and so sprinklers don’t hamper escape.
At Columbine, fire alarms made it difficult for police to hear directions, the task force noted. It also noted the importance of having more than one person know how to shut off emergency systems. During the Columbine incident, no one present knew how to turn off the sprinklers. Hallways quickly filled with water, making it difficult to escape.
These tips were part of a 20-point crisis response kit distributed last month to each of California’s 8,331 schools, as well as local law enforcement agencies and fire departments. The contents of the kit were developed over the last year based on lessons learned at Columbine and other school shootings.
“This was the first time we looked at all the incidents nationally,” said Kathy Jett, director of the California attorney general’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center. “We went right to the people that were there and asked them, ‘What do you wish you had?'”
California educators and law enforcement officials studied the recent spate of school shootings as part of a 23-member task force led by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. After surveying officials who dealt with crises in other states, the group unveiled its recommendations April 17.
The task force said the crisis response boxes should also contain items like aerial photos, maps, and blueprints of the school; master keys; staff and student rosters and photos; emergency phone lists and evacuation sites; and shut-off procedures for fire alarms, sprinklers, and utilities.
The plan calls for one version of the box to kept on the school campus, while identical copies are stored by police, sheriffs, fire departments, and other emergency agencies, Lockyer said. In case a school shooting does occur, authorities will be able to work from identical information to coordinate a response and reduce confusion.
The task force, which began meeting even before Columbine occurred, discovered that schools and police often hadn’t coordinated before such tragedies. When time mattered most, schools couldn’t provide the information police needed. For instance, at Columbine, a school map posted near the campus entrance didn’t show that several classrooms had been divided into smaller rooms.
“I don’t want to have someone go in search of a map in a crisis,” said Sandra McBrayer, who co-chaired the task force. In addition, if top school officials are absent, other employees can still find the information they need in the kit.
Since 1997, California schools have been required to write and implement a comprehensive safety plan, including a disaster and emergency response program. Lockyer said the crisis response kit will help schools meet that requirement. The $60,000 cost to distribute the kit is being shared by the attorney general’s office and the state Department of Education.
Copies of the kit are available on the California Department of Justice web site at http://caag.state.ca.us.