Schooled in Preparedness
THE EAST AURORA SCHOOL DISTRICT, located about 35 miles west of Chicago, includes a preschool, 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools, among other facilities—with a population of approximately 13,500 students and 1,370 teachers, staff, and administrators. Thanks to a federal grant program, East Aurora has been able to enhance the safety of this population by creating a detailed all-hazards emergency management plan, conducting extensive training and drills, and stockpiling supplies to help deal with future emergency incidents.
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) began offering Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grants. During each year since, local educational agencies have been invited to apply for funds for the following school year. The REMS program was created to assist local educational agencies in creating, reviewing, and strengthening emergency management plans within the framework of prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery in collaboration with community partners including local law enforcement, public safety, public health, mental health agencies, and other relevant local government agencies.
The East Aurora School District was one of 105 local education agencies to win a grant for the 2009-2010 school year. The full amount of the grant was $248,515.
Winners of the grants are those local education agencies whose applications show a well-thought-out plan for use of the funds, providing specific details. For example, when discussing training, a successful applicant explores who needs specific types of training and why it is needed. The applicant also identifies local experts who can provide the training. Evidence of planning for sustainability is important to win a REMS grant. An example would be proposing to develop training DVDs that are usable after the term of the grant has ended.
REMS grant money can be used to hire consultants to assist the school district’s grant administrator during the funded period and to provide training for administrators, teachers, staff, students, and parents. The district hired Randy Braverman, senior consultant with RETA Security, Inc., of Lemont, Illinois. Braverman works with the grant administrator 12 hours per week. Part of his job, he explains, has been to regularly meet with all of the involved representatives of the school district, the county, the health department, first responders, law enforcement, and other public and private entities as they have constructed the school district’s new all-hazards emergency management plan.
A former police and school resource officer, Braverman is a current member of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force’s School Security Subcommittee and previously served as the director of security for the Cicero School District, the fourth largest school district in the state. Now with RETA, Braverman teaches all-hazard emergency planning and K-12 campus safety.
Five years ago, Braverman played a role in developing the Illinois School Safety Drill Act. The act established minimum requirements and standards for Illinois schools to follow when conducting school safety drills and reviewing school emergency and crisis response plans.
During each academic year, schools must conduct a minimum of three evacuation drills: one bus evacuation drill, one school lockdown drill, and one severe weather and shelter-in-place drill. The demands of the act need to be recognized and incorporated into the new plan, as do requirements of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which all REMS grantees must adopt at the school and campus community level.
NIMS, mandated by presidential directive in 2003, is a nationwide template to enable federal, state, and local governments; nongovernmental organizations; and the private sector to work together to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of varied emergency incidents. A part of NIMS, for example, is to adopt standardized and consistent terminology for school and campus incidents, including the use of plain-English communication standards now adopted by the public-safety sector.
Before the grant, the East Aurora School District’s emergency management plan did not cover the full range of possible crises. While the plan covered severe weather, bomb threats, active shooters, and community danger (such as a near by hostage standoff), there were no procedures for incidents such as train derailments (rail lines are close to some of the district’s schools), hazardous-material releases, structural failures, student abductions, sexual assaults, attempted or successful suicides on campus, disease outbreaks, suspicious packages, or weapons on school grounds. Existing evacuation plans did not include procedures for evacuating special needs students or information on off-campus rallying points and sites where parents and children could be reunited.
The district’s goal was to create a plan that incorporated the full spectrum of crisis possibilities and set forth uniform procedures for each school to follow. However, these identical procedures—for example, classroom lockdowns—had to work within each unique facility, where there would be crisis management plans tailored to each site’s individual realities. With that in mind, there had to be vulnerability assessments of each building or school and campus in light of specific types of potential incidents.
Getting group planning underway was not easy. “During the first months, it was difficult to get everyone on board just because of the number of representatives from 24 different buildings and all the agencies,” says Braverman.
It was the first time that the majority of the players had sat together en masse. Previously, he explains, school district representatives coordinated with individual agencies one-on-one and only sporadically. After about four months, however, “everyone was working well together,” Braverman says.
As the planning progressed, the district drafted agreements with the first-responder, law enforcement, and nongovernment organizations that would be participants during and after a crisis incident, as well as with private companies.
One of the agreements, for example, involved the two private bus companies that the district hires to transport students. “The agreement reached,” explains Braverman, “detailed how the companies should respond in a campus emergency—how many buses they could have there in within 15 minutes, within a half hour, and [within] an hour to get the kids off the campus, or if the kids are off the campus, to bring them to designated sites to be reunited with parents.” The agreement also stipulated yearly bus evacuation drills.
The district also entered into agreements with local businesses, churches, and other schools to serve as evacuation points. The agreements stipulate that the school district has the right to use the facilities and that each facility will provide keys to ensure access as well as current contact information, such as phone and e-mail addresses for the appropriate contact personnel.
Agreements were reached with local radio and television media outlets to broadcast where parents should assemble to be reunited with their children during an incident. These agreements were made with both English and Spanish broadcasters “to make sure we have the right message going out in different languages,” states Braverman.
Agreements also went both ways, with the school district formalizing arrangements for the American Red Cross and other NGOs to use school facilities during citywide crises.
The completed all-hazard emergency management plan is some 270 pages long. It was awaiting adoption by the Illinois State School Board as this issue went to press.
In addition to assisting in the shaping of the new all-hazards emergency management plan, Braverman—along with Paul Timm, PSP, RETA’s president and a member of the ASIS International Educational Institutions Security Council, and others—have conducted a plethora of training during the grant period.
As part of the planning process, Braverman taught more than 100 people a course on all-hazards emergency planning for schools. The training was sponsored by the Illinois Terrorism Task Force, and included basic emergency planning, the development of an emergency crisis plan, and the dictates of the state’s School Safety Drill Act.
The training regimen also includes mandatory multi-level NIMS courses. NIMS requires the institution of the Incident Command System (ICS) for managing all emergency incidents and preplanned school and campus events. Existing emergency management plans must incorporate NIMS, as must all training and exercises, and key school and campus personnel must complete NIMS training. Braverman and Timm have conducted the NIMS 700a introductory course for more than 130 of these key personnel. A further 40 administrators received the NIMS 200 course, which teaches personnel who are assigned supervisory positions during crises to operate within the ICS. An additional 10 administrators took the NIMS 300 course for emergency response directors and supervisors.
Assessments. Timm also conducted vulnerability assessment training for 44 district administrators and building and grounds personnel. “He showed them how to do a physical site assessment at their building so that they could do it themselves as well as go back and train others,” states Braverman.
Bus drivers. As part of the training funded by the grant, agents from the Chicago office of the FBI were brought in to teach approximately 200 drivers from the contract companies a special course on bus terrorism.
Crisis intervention. More than 300 personnel, including teachers, secretaries, and custodians, received crisis intervention training, including how to best respond to both upset adults and hard-to-handle children.
Medical. Many of the district’s personnel have received training in CPR, basic first aid, and the correct operation of automated external defibrillators. All personnel have received training on dealing with blood-borne pathogens.
Parents. Four training sessions have been held throughout the year for parents of the district’s students. These sessions covered where students will rally during a building evacuation, including when they have to leave the site—for example, if a gas leak means the students must be removed from the vicinity to shelter at a local church or business. Parents have also been educated on where to find information and where to gather if there is a crisis at the school.
Parents and teachers have also received training on gang awareness from the Aurora Police Department.
Students. Students have been trained on procedures for both on-campus and off-campus evacuations, as well as on how to respond in the event of hard lockdowns. During the latter, for example, they learned to move away from doors, turn off lights, lower shades, and shelter behind standing objects. They learned about the use of red and green cards to help first responders triage in the aftermath of a shooting spree. If a green card is placed on a classroom interior or exterior window, it signals responders that everyone in the room is okay. A red card signals that help is needed immediately for victims inside.
Additionally, students received shelter-in-place training for events such as tornados, where they are taught to move into the center of the building, away from windows, and to assume protective positions. They received bus emergency training, including the standard use of emergency exits and location of fire extinguishers, and they learned more advanced skills, such as how to use the bus radio to call for help if the driver becomes incapacitated.
As previously mentioned, the Illinois School Safety Drill Act mandates several types of drills. All of these have been conducted with students at all district schools this year.
Tabletop exercises have also been held at each school. These exercises tested the designated incident command teams made up of administrators, secretaries, maintenance staff, and some teachers, and included representatives from the police and fire departments. The teams were put through two possible emergencies and critiqued on their responses. Next year, there are plans for a full-scale, active shooter exercise with all first responders.
Maps and Supplies
The REMS grant has also allowed the school district to create plans and maps and to purchase supplies to be used in emergency management and incident response.
Maps. Detailed floor-plan maps have been made for each of the 24 facilities. These maps include gas, water, and electric shutoffs, evacuation routes through the buildings, shelter-in-place locations, and additional information useful to both onsite staff and first responders.
Aerial maps were also created that show exterior evacuation routes to rally areas both on campus and off site, planned triage sites, media areas, parent gathering areas, and more. This information has also been digitized and provided to local law enforcement agencies, which can call up maps on their in-vehicle computers, and other first responders.
Classrooms. Each classroom now has a one-page emergency-response plan for teachers, listing the steps of a lockdown and other procedures. There are clear-plastic emergency backpacks filled with 22 different supplies for use in a crisis. “For example, if there is an active shooter in the building, even after the shooter has been dealt with, the teacher and children might be stuck in the classroom for hours while law enforcement clears the building,” explains Braverman.
The backpack includes food and water, medical supplies, a wind-up flashlight, glow sticks, a safety vest, emergency blankets, and a tarp and toilet paper to create an on-the-spot toilet with a trashcan, as well as pencils, markers, paper, a clip board, and other items. Because it is in an easy-to-grab pack, it can be taken to evacuation locations and on field trips.
Schools. The schools have their own unique emergency management kits. These include incident command vests to make those in the chain of command clearly identifiable, paper and markers, a copy of the school’s individual plan, master keys, card access keys, aerial maps showing evacuation rally points and shelter-in-place facilities, building plans showing shut-offs and critical equipment, and more. A duplicate of each school’s kit is kept at an off-site location and an off-site staff member is assigned to pick up the kit and bring it to first responders if those inside the school cannot get out. Every school also has a special cart of social work supplies for the aftermath of crisis situations.
An emergency flip chart for use by all staff provides a quick and easy reference on emergency issues including bomb threats, gas leaks, and dangerous trespassers. The flip chart also provides key phone numbers and contact information.
Communications. The school district has upgraded all of its radio communication equipment and systems, including facility radios for internal use, Local Radio Network radios for external emergency use, and equipment to improve radio and wireless communication reception at shelter sites.
The district also has made sure that it has adequate Internet communications capability as a component of the all-hazards emergency management plan’s contingencies for epidemics or pandemics such as H1N1. That enables remote classroom instruction via the Internet.
“The district can still teach even if the schools shut down,” Braverman says. “The district has partnered with a video company to tape teachers giving their lessons. They can be streamed on the Web.”
There is an agreement with the local cable companies to broadcast all homework assignments as well as update messages to parents. Equipment is also in place to hold Webcasts for administrators and teachers to keep them apprised of what is happening during an emergency, such as a contagious disease outbreak.
A parent-communication network has been developed, allowing the school district to automatically phone or send emails to inform parents that there has been an incident at their child’s school. In a crisis, information would also be posted on the school’s Web site and broadcast by the TV and radio media.
The grant requires that the school district send a midterm and final report regarding how funds have been spent. This includes the results of pre- and post-training tests administered to measure the level of know ledge gained by attending the courses. The final report, due within 90 days of the end of the grant, will document the extent to which the goals of the grant have been met.
The district does not plan to rest on its laurels. Each year, “the school district will review the plan with first responders and other partners to make sure that it is updated,” says Braverman.
“Each building has a committee to review its individual crisis management plan each year,” he says. “They have an agreement between the partnerships that once the grant is over, they are going to continue training and continue this effort to make the schools safer through exercises and revising the plan and doing drills.”
Ann Longmore-Etheridge is associate editor of Security Management and editor of ASIS Dynamics.