By Laura Ray
Pre-pandemic, schools nationwide had very well-versed and practiced emergency communication plans. However, with the onset of the global pandemic, everything has changed in the operations of the education industry. If simple things have changed, like how you interact with students and staff daily, would it be safe to say that your emergency communication plan needs to be adjusted as well? When was the last time your school conducted a test of your emergency communication plan?
Post-pandemic, as staff and students make adjustments in moving and interacting across the school campus, school leaders are taking time to reevaluate their safety plans and communication tools. Keeping staff and students safe is the No. 1 priority of school leaders. Therefore, updating these processes is taking the forefront for the upcoming school year.
Here are a few things to consider when updating the emergency communication plan for your school campus.
How schools respond in an active shooter situation or other crisis often begins with making sure they have the right tools. Adequately updating the emergency communication plan is crucial for a school to operate safely and efficiently in the post-pandemic culture. If communication is insufficient during an emergency, all people involved can experience severe consequences.
Educational organizations across the country have found it imperative to have an updated school emergency communication plan to help mitigate panic among staff, students, parents, and the community during a crisis. An updated emergency communication plan also allows for the proper broadcast of accurate information to the necessary internal and external teams. Quick communication, in turn, provides for appropriate actions to be taken by law enforcement and additional responders, as well.
One of the most critical components that we frequently see schools run into is the lack of staff engagement when implementing new safety methodologies and technologies. Training staff accordingly and having a clear communication plan with supporting communication technologies ensure that everyone feels connected and aware of what is happening within the school during a crisis.
When someone says communication, the first thing that comes to mind is speaking words or sending an email. Other communication examples include posters, flashing lights, siren warnings, bulletins, hardware devices, software programs, pictograms, PA announcements, etc. Each communication tool can be critical to communicating safely, depending on many factors.
Where are the weak points in your school’s communication channels for emergencies?
Do you have an updated list of your communication team for internal and external resources to channel information? For example, double-check your list of which team members communicate with parents, students, and internal staff, handle media, and communicate with law enforcement. Describe the role and responsibility of each team member as part of the emergency communication plan that best fits the post-pandemic culture. Also, check for valid contact information, including updated cell phone numbers for all team members. Updating this part of the plan ensures that all team members know what they are responsible for during an emergency. If possible, make sure your communication tools have the ability to give each team member instructions on how to handle the crisis event at the onset of the crisis.
Have the levels of communication been identified for specific crises?
The communication plan should include different levels of crisis communication needs. It is essential to remind responsible parties of their responsibilities at the beginning of the crisis. For example, an active shooter or intruder emergency would be at the highest level of crisis communication. This level would require immediate and strict management of all communication channels. In contrast, bad weather might constitute a text message or phone call. Using the right communication tools for your organization is crucial.
Does the plan show what tools to use for communication during the crisis to clearly and effectively relay information without panic?
Communication tools come in several different forms. Alarms, panic buttons, and hand-held radios are great for getting the message out and communicating urgently and efficiently with staff and responders. Cell phones, computers, iPads, and other digital devices are equally crucial for being able to update parents and the community. And then the other side to that is how staff can receive those communications, such lights, speakers, computer, mobile phone, phone call, text, and email.
Make a required list of physical and digital communication tools available during a crisis:
* A panic button app instantly dials 911 and allows open communication of what is happening to school staff and responders.
* Wi-Fi stick (a small USB that acts as an Internet connection)
* Fully charged cell phones
* Hard-wired and wireless alarms
* Extra iPads, laptops, radios, and batteries
* A crisis landing page or social media account can be updated and pushed live should anything happen.
Once you list all available tools, decide which resources are best for communicating to which parties. You want to communicate safely without letting unwanted persons know what is happening during the crisis. Depending on the situation, ask yourself what’s more critical: loud, in-your-face communication or stealthy communication? If you communicate with law enforcement and responders, stealthy communication is vital. Visual communication tools may be more effective if you communicate with staff and students.
Understanding the layering and the types of events you are preparing for in this day and age is vital to forming a safe and practiced response. Additionally, when staff receives training in responding to those events, it helps prevent future damages, incidents, and deaths.
Hold practice crisis drills once or twice a semester. Ensure that you involve law enforcement, media, staff, and students. Practice drills are essential because it allows you to test your emergency communication plan for weaknesses. Practice drills also give staff, teachers, students, and responders the chance to refresh their training on what to do during certain emergency events. Practicing good communication processes paired with recent technology improvements may reduce injuries, increase efficiency, and better engage team members.
Remember, the proper safety communication tools are only the beginning. Developing and maintaining your school’s practiced processes and procedures is equally important. In addition, those tools and techniques need to work together to help create a safer school environment.
Laura Ray is with TeamAlert, a technology-based panic buttons that lets staff in one or more locations notify others, including 911 centers, that they need assistance, www.teamalert.com.