In recent years, campus tragedies across the country have prompted leaders of education institutions to redouble their crisis planning efforts.
Too often, however, these emergency plans focus almost exclusively on facilities, hardware and systems without sufficient consideration for the people they potentially affect. People, not equipment, will bring an end to an emergency and help save lives.
Different people react in crisis in different ways, but there are many ways to prepare and encourage them to take the most effective action. Crisis communications planning is essential and should focus on the critical human element in a school’s crisis management approach.
Planning for a Broad Range of Crises
A crisis involves a situation or event that is experienced or perceived as intolerably difficult and may exceed typically available resources, personnel, procedures and coping mechanisms. Despite the fact that every specific emergency can’t be anticipated, effective communication in any crisis involves extensive planning, preparation and training. Schools might experience fires, severe weather, natural disasters, civil unrest, major system or equipment failure, food poisoning, pandemic and even violence. Some events may be unique to a particular school, building or campus, while others could happen anywhere at any time.
Crisis response plans should provide direction to involved stakeholders during and after a crisis event. Careful thought needs to be given in advance to address specific "hardware considerations" in communicating vital information to students, faculty, staff and others directly involved in a crisis event on campus.
Plans should include procedures for the rapid identification of potentially harmful situations and the methods for responding to situations quickly and effectively. They also need to address initial and ongoing information-sharing with key internal and external stakeholders.
How Will People React?
Among many other issues, advance planning efforts need to address "hardware considerations" in effectively facilitating people’s response during an emergency. Hardware includes a school’s buildings, equipment, location, systems and contents. As much as possible, these hardware factors need to support the human factors involved in any crisis response.
Human behavior during any crisis may be much different than we might expect. Contrary to popular belief, most people are resilient. They seldom respond completely irrationally during crises. We’ve all seen the headlines about people panicking or becoming hysterical during emergencies. The reality is that individuals experience both productive and unproductive responses to crises. In the immediate moments following a major crisis, people frequently experience anxiety, fear, confusion and disbelief. Hysteria and panic are rarely seen. A situation may be abnormal, but, in general, people’s reactions are not.
A far more common reaction is for affected individuals to first attempt to ensure their own safety and welfare. Many will then make every effort to help others. This behavior has been well-documented in high-profile emergencies worldwide. This occurred in the immediate aftermath of both the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings.
Productive responses during an emergency include a sudden increase in physical strength and sensory acuity and a dramatic decrease in reaction time. This is especially true when the involved individuals have been properly trained in response procedures. Some of the more unproductive responses may include overreactions that may further result in an inappropriate response. People sometimes freeze when they should be taking action.
Although most people respond reasonably well during crises, this does not mean that their actions and reactions automatically will be efficient and orderly. Often, an individual’s own resources are concentrated heavily on imminent physical and emotional safety and survival. The individual may not immediately recall routines and details. External structure and systems may need to help in guiding the individual’s next steps.
Preparing People to Perform under Duress
Human communication is an imperfect art, especially during a crisis. Because of the disorienting nature of a crisis, it’s important to use simple and clear messages that are easy to recall and simple to reference. Communications must address four simple priorities in any emergency:
1. Keep yourself safe. People can’t help others unless they are safe. Airplane passengers are reminded to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting others. Likewise faculty, staff, students and other affected people need to keep themselves as safe as possible during emergencies so that they are in better positions to help others.
2. Assess the situation. Take as calm a view as possible in quickly evaluating the circumstances. Consider the nature of the emergency, the number of people involved, the number of victims and casualties (if appropriate), and whether or not the situation continues to be dangerous.
3. Summon assistance. Based on the magnitude of the situation and school policies, summon appropriate assistance. This could involve security, management staff, a crisis response team, law enforcement and/or emergency medical services. Regardless of the type of assistance summoned, help is needed quickly and efficiently.
4. Make the environment as safe as possible
Schools can support these priorities by incorporating numerous hardware considerations in advance planning efforts:
•Anticipate possibilities and plan for vulnerabilities specific to a school community.
•Keep in mind that plans should be flexible enough to accommodate unanticipated events and circumstances.
•Design a comprehensive diagram or map of every zone (room, building, division or section) on campus that potentially could be affected by a crisis situation.
•Maps and diagrams should be comprehensive, yet simple to read and reference.
•Include the locations of elevators as well as primary and secondary stairways.
•Note the locations of telephones, radios, emergency alarm activation stations and other communication devices.
•Indicate the location of emergency resources including flashlights, fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and utility shutoff points.
•Prominently designate two exit routes from each zone.
•Choose at least two emergency meeting areas:
1) A place near the affected zone.
2) A place safely outside the affected zone.
•Post maps and diagrams wherever relevant and necessary.
•Post directions for initiating calls for assistance. These should include any necessary access codes.
•Plan for the diversity of the school community. This may include the need for language or cultural specificity in crisis communications.
•Consider any special communications with and arrangements for individuals who may be challenged with mobility, sensory, learning, and developmental or cognitive disabilities.
•Test communication systems and equipment on a regular basis.
•Provide ongoing training for all involved stakeholders. This includes faculty, staff, students, volunteers and anyone involved in the school community who could be affected by a school crisis.
•Conduct realistic drills involving all stakeholders in potentially affected school zones.
•Involve local emergency services, contractors, adjunct faculty, and law enforcement in policy planning, training, drills and reviews.
•Debrief crisis events and drills. Depending on the nature of the situation and to the extent possible, attempt to prevent further harm. If possible, direct people away from affected zones. As an alternative, shelter in place if necessary and if it is safe to do so.
Badzmierowski is the director of instructor services with the Prepare Training program at the Crisis Prevention Institute, Milwaukee, an international training organization committed to best practices and safe behavior management methods that focus on prevention. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 787-5166.