School districts must create and test emergency-response plans before a disaster or other emergency situation occurs: That was the focus of a webcast hosted by the Consortium for School Networking on Jan. 8.

"A plan needs to exist before it is needed–making one on the fly is too late," said Sheryl Abshire, administrative coordinator of technology for Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish Schools, which were affected two years ago by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "Many of us have plans on a shelf, but in preparing for the unexpected you need to have a plan that you live and breathe."

Schools should identify their mission-critical operations, play out scenarios to see how their emergency plan fits different situations, think creatively, and pay attention to the tiny details that might end up being important during an emergency, Abshire said.

"In most situations, it’s the details that will get you," she added.

While many people would classify eMail services as mission-critical, Abshire said payroll services also fall under that category.

"You must develop a critical incident plan," said Hollis Stambaugh, director of the Center for Public Protection at TriData in Arlington, Va. A critical incident plan (CIP) should identify an emergency operations center from which disaster coordination with internal and outside resources will be directed, Stambaugh said. This CIP should be prepared in conjunction with area first-responder agencies so that educators know exactly how those agencies will respond to a school emergency.

"You get to know each other, and relationships are built, and when that trust is established, it becomes critical during an emergency," she said.

Schools also should conduct a threat assessment before they begin writing a CIP, and this assessment should cover both natural disasters and acts of violence. Here’s another tip: Designate a group to evaluate the degree of danger posed by students, faculty, and employees who exhibit a collection of seriously abnormal behaviors over time.

"We’re not talking about people who dress differently, or anything that would infringe on civil rights or free speech; we’re talking about a collection of red flags that could be indicative of serious problems that would be a threat," Stambaugh said.

Schools must have clear authority and procedures to issue warnings, alerts, and evacuations, Stambaugh said, citing the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings as an example.

"There needs to be one person who has the authority to make that decision," she said. "At Virginia Tech, for example, those decisions were made by a group, and [by the time] that group was convened, the warnings went out too late."

Making wise decisions before a crisis occurs can help reduce the number of difficulties your schools might encounter during an actual emergency.

"In Louisiana, we made several strategic purchasing decisions. When gasoline was at a premium after the storms, we had no problems, because we used a natural gas-powered generator to maintain essential systems," Abshire said. "And we used rack-mounted servers that were able to be moved in case of disaster."

Standardizing equipment and services can help districts bring their systems back up quickly, and so can having redundant backup systems. Schools also should strive to have servers that can handle increased capacity during an emergency.

"San Diego County servers were crashing, but the community could get information from the school district’s web site," said Robert Gravina, chief technology officer for the Poway Unified School District, the third largest in San Diego County. Poway was directly affected by last year’s wildfires in Southern California.

Having "clean," or current, data–including employee contact information–also is essential.

"We were in the heart of the fires and had to evacuate the district office, and we moved it over to the city council office. In moving, we had to have access to our applications while being off-site. Being able to get into the network from remote locations was critical to us," Gravina said.

In cases where schools might be closed for a long time, such as during a pandemic, schools should be able to continue educating their students with anywhere, anytime learning though online courses.

"During the fires, teachers were sending out assignments and students were logging in–it was on a small scale, but we need to figure out how to do this on a large scale," Gravina said.

Establishing relationships with emergency personnel will help schools act quickly during an emergency.

"There is no better friend to a school district in times of critical need than an emergency contact organization," Abshire said.

Strategic partnerships with vendors and area representatives also are important.

"Relationships and partnerships you develop with local government and vendors are critical when it comes down to needing somebody and having that communication and those relationships set up," Gravina said. "You can’t develop those during a disaster–it has to be done beforehand."

"You cannot over-plan," Abshire added. "Do not believe that [a disaster] will not happen to you; all of us on this call today believed that it would never happen, but thank goodness we were prepared to act quickly and efficiently."

Kevin Carman, director of K-12 segment marketing for AT&T, said many technologies are available today "to help enhance school safety, improve response times, and mitigate or prevent situations." These include interoperable communications, emergency-alert broadcasting, anonymous tip web sites, malicious call tracing, school bus tracking, and video surveillance.

"Technology isn’t going to make schools safer on its own. It’s not going to be a substitute for a good, comprehensive school safety program," Carman concluded. "But technologies are useful in supplementing and helping a well-trained staff respond."


Consortium for School Networking