What would happen if a major catastrophe like the Tsunami in Japan struck during schools hours in your community? Do you know what would happen? Would you know where your children are, how to get them or what their condition is? Is your school really prepared to really take care of your kids?
These questions came to mind when looking at a picture from NBC news showing a mound of several hundred muddied and torn school backpacks collected in a pile in the midst of a devastated landscape. The caption for this picture read:
“Schoolbags are recovered from Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture on March 22. Only 24 of 84 schoolchildren and 13 teachers have been found alive so far. After the earthquake hit, all the schoolchildren and teachers prepared for evacuation in the school yard. Some children left for their homes with family members. While the rest of the children were waiting to be collected, the tsunami hit.”
What struck me was the matter-of-factness of the numbers. Sixty children from an elementary are missing and presumably dead, but nobody can say with certainty. How many other school children suffered similar fates we do not know either.
But as we contemplate the heap of lifeless school backpacks, each one recently attached to a child, I ask again is your school ready? Are we taking this kind of emergency scenario seriously enough? Here are some basic questions:
- Is your school capable of being an emergency shelter with ample food, water and electricity during a prolonged emergency?
- Is your school earthquake proof? Is it hurricane proof? Is it in a flood zone?
- Where do the children go if they must evacuate the school during an emergency and shelter at another location? Do you know where it is? Would you know if they were moved?
- How will you be able to get information about your children’s location and health status? Is there multiple means of communication and information dissemination set-up? Do you know what they are?
- Does your school have real interoperable communications with police, fire, ems and emergency management?
- Who is in charge and what is the chain of command in emergencies? Are they trained to make critical assessments and handle emergencies? Are they certified in NIMS-ICS procedures?
- Does your school have back-up satellite communications? If not, why not?
- Is there an emergency store of critical medications that your child may need for prolonged sheltering? If not why not?
- Is there a full time nurse on staff? If not, why not?
- Is there family disaster assistance plan for teachers and others who must take care of kids, or will they abandon your children if things really get bad because they must take care of their families?
- Is there a system that will enable youngsters to communicate with parents during an emergency or while sheltering away from home?
- Is there a procedure for periodic roll call and status of students? How does the school monitor egress?
- Is your school staff trained to handle and alleviate the psychological stress that young children will feel during an emergency?
- If something happens to you in an emergency, does the school have alternate pick-up plans?
- Can you pick up your children during an emergency or will you be locked out the school and be placed in danger? How does the school communicate that to you?
- Does the school have a policy making sure siblings are reunited and sheltered together?
- What plans are in place to deal with genders if sheltering in place is required? Will male teachers be left along to care for young girls? Should they?
While school budgets always seem to be tight and many priorities must give way to others, there are many reasons why investing in emergency preparedness and resiliency must take a priority at local and state levels. We have seen the consequences of schools involved in major emergencies, whether it was in the China earthquakes, the Japan Tsunami, or the many unspeakable acts of terrorism committed against schools throughout the world. As a society and has parents, we have a duty to protect our children, and the complacency is frightening.
There are few states that seem to be taking some important initiatives. In 2010, New Jersey passed a a law (New Jersey Statutes Section 18A:41-1) requiring that schools coordinate and work with emergency responders to implement and update school safety plans, and implement drill, management and emergency response procedures. The New Jersey law also mandates that full-time school employees receive training on school safety and emergency drills.
In Colorado, a new bill (Colorado Senate Bill No. SB11-173, “Interoperable Communications in Schools”) concerning interoperable communications for Colorado schools is pressing forward. Sponsored by Senator Steve King, this bill should serve as a model for action in other states. Without robust interoperable emergency communications and real time information sharing between schools and first responder, emergency management and emergency support function agencies, the framework for ensuring coordinated and effective live saving response is missing. Simply using a public 911 emergency call mechanism during an emergency for a school is woefully inadequate for a myriad of reasons, including the basic fact that a major community resource with hundreds of at-risk children is competing for assistance and call time with the general public and repetitive and possibly flooded call banks. Moreover, a method of constant situational awareness and coordinated effort is required at the beginning, during and after an emergency. This communication capability also serves as a means for important tabletop and field exercises and training, so that the school staff is capable of responding appropriately and effectively during a disaster or emergency.
At the end of the day, schools must be properly equipped, have practiced emergency plans in place, and the school staff must be trained and prepared to deal with large scale emergencies, because they can and do happen. Emergency preparedness and resilience requires an investment in time, focus and resources for unknown or unpredictable events. In many cases emergences are o remote that initiatives often lose their rightful priority until it is too late. Emergency preparedness is not attractive and sexy like sports and other popular school programs, but they are vital to the long term safety of our children.
There is no single greater force for change than parents, and of all the issues confronting schools emergency preparedness and resilience should be front and center, because the lives of our children may depend on it.