Stay Calm in a Crisis
TRAINING IS THE KEY to ensuring that faculty, staff, and students make the best possible decisions during any school emergency and deal effectively with the aftermath as well. Toward that end, security should spend time with all of these constituencies, instructing them in the specifics of the emergency plan, their roles, and what types of issues to anticipate in an event. These groups should be required to practice the plan, and after any such practice exercises, security should debrief participants.
As the level of stress increases in an emergency event, the ability to analytically solve problems decreases. But stress can be managed through education. If faculty and staff know they are going to experience stress, they can be prepared to counter it.
Security should hold sessions for faculty and staff to discuss how the body reacts during a stressful event. For example, security can discuss how, in an emergency event, stress will cause certain involuntary physiological changes, with the degree of change being related to the level of stress experienced.
Physiologically, the brain recognizes the beginnings of stress and will send a series of instantaneous orders throughout the body by way of releasing certain chemicals. The most evident change will be a signal from the brain to redirect or increase blood to various parts of the body. An increase in respiration rate will create additional intake of oxygen. Some locations, such as muscles, receive added oxygenated blood.
A person’s body has a limited amount of oxygenated blood, however. If some parts of the body receive additional oxygenated blood, other parts will receive less. Areas of sensory perception will be one of those areas adversely affected. The ability to feel pain, use peripheral vision, or access auditory functions may be reduced.
Security should use this information to drive home the importance of training. Stress causes a reduction in the ability to think analytically and solve complex problems. This is caused by a disruption in the frontal lobe of the brain as a result of stress hormones. In fact, under extreme stress, the body literally switches from manual control to auto pilot.
Under normal conditions, humans use a decision-making process that usually involves a thoughtful analysis of all considerations, a review of possible options, and a final decision. This is a process that serves individuals well under stress-free conditions. However, when under stress, people may need to make decisions instantaneously. This can only be accomplished with planning and practice.
To the extent that someone might need a reminder of what to do by, say, referencing an emergency checklist, security should recognize the emotional and physiological state the person will be in.
Detailed written instructions, while valuable during training, are less useful during a crisis. Under stress, people will most likely be able to recognize, understand, and respond to only a few words, written or verbal. This means that the emergency plan available during an event needs to be as brief as possible. It should be in a readable font in a 14-to16-point size, in bullet points, and in short, succinct sentences.
Security should teach emergency response procedures to all staff and, to a limited degree, to students. There is an added level of comfort when one is educated and empowered, and this can positively affect stress level.
Security should also highlight the work and expertise that went into the plan. If staff believe that the planning was done well, they will be more inclined to take the training seriously. Security should walk them through the plan and explain why it works. Security should also emphasize that it is a dynamic document that changes based on experience.
School counselors should be available to discuss with staff their role in working with the students during and after an incident. For example, the counselor should share a sample announcement that will be made during a drill, natural disaster, or security incident. Counselors should emphasize how they will provide support in the aftermath of an incident. Additionally, counselors should have a role in preventing incidents, and they should tell staff about that role, including what sort of behavior should signal concern and how it can be reported.
Some types of information, such as bomb threat procedures, should not be shared with students. However, students must be aware of what they should do in case of a fire even if no one is there to tell them. They do not need to know the minutiae of the plan, but they should know where fire pull stations are and how to use a fire extinguisher.
It may not be practical to do extensive training on all types of incidents—an armed intruder, a fire, a tornado. However, staff can practice drills and participate in tabletop exercises that deal with the most probable incidents.
While written plans provide guidance for a suggested response during a crisis, emergencies seldom, if ever, follow a script. Staff members must be empowered to take charge, improvise, and be in control when the situation warrants. Practice events are the optimal place to teach this lesson.
The practice could be held during nontraditional times and under less than ideal conditions. Similarly, tabletop exercises can provide a venue for practicing events not normally part of a standard drill. All of these strategies will have a positive impact on the participants’ confidence level.
This type of preparation can make a difference in a real emergency. For example, at one school, police made a felony arrest in a school parking lot at the beginning of the school day. The arrest was for a home invasion and police, fearing that the suspects were armed, drew their weapons.
That particular school building had a glass front so the normal procedure would have been to put the school in lockdown during the incident. However, administrators were in meetings and were not immediately aware of the incident. The teachers in the classrooms overlooking the parking lot saw what was going on outside, and acting on what they had been taught, they put their own classes on lockdown individually; they got the kids away from the windows, and they waited for the threat to pass. This was the right thing to do. They knew to take such action because they had been trained to think on their feet.
Security should not underestimate the value of debriefing after a real or practiced exercise. Debriefing, whether formal or informal, creates a dialogue through which staff can formulate strategies for how they might respond more effectively in future events. Debriefing also builds confidence between administrators and teachers, which helps to reduce stress.
Staff members should be encouraged to share problems or thoughts on how to improve the emergency response. As soon as a drill or event is over, the principal should send out an e-mail asking for comments. For nonroutine exercises, such as lockdown drills, the e-mail should go out that afternoon and a meeting of teachers, staff, and administrators should be held within 48 hours to discuss the event. For an intruder drill, debriefing should occur within 24 hours.
The feedback received during these sessions is crucial for use in future drills and actual incidents. For example, during one intruder event, a school neglected to make provisions for students to go to the bathroom should the need arise. The situation lasted for several hours, and the issue became critical. Because of this feedback, the school devised a solution. Once an event has begun, a teacher should use the intercom to contact the office. An administrator will escort the student to the restroom if it is safe to do so. A procedure was developed to manage student needs within the classroom during a real incident when travel outside the classroom might not be possible due to safety concerns.
The debriefing process is also critical after an actual incident. For example, one high school was ordered to evacuate after a nearby gas main break. As per the plan, teachers moved students to the gym, the farthest point away from the break, and planned to shelter in place. When students got to the gym, however, no one had pulled the bleachers out, so hundreds of students were pouring into the gym with no place to sit, making taking attendance difficult. Administrators altered the plan for sheltering in place to include a check by custodians to ensure that the bleachers are pulled out. Teachers were instructed to have students sit in their assigned seats for assemblies, making it easier to account for each student’s presence.
After serious events that result in injury or death, the debriefing process must involve school counselors. The meeting should include an assessment of how the administrators and teachers are handling the aftermath of the crisis. Counselors should be tasked with bringing in additional resources if needed.
Counselors are also charged with communicating with students and determining how well they are coping. A report on this aspect of the aftermath should be given to administrators during the debriefing. The report should include recommendations regarding the next steps, such as plans for attending funerals or other memorial events.
For individuals in the education sector, or any occupation that rarely experiences extreme stress, understanding how stress affects one’s response is important. Compensating through planning, practice, and debriefing is critical to ensuring a positive outcome.
Dennis Lewis is the cofounder of Edu-Safe in Springfield, Missouri. Edu-Safe is an advisory and training organization established to assist school administrators and others with the task of providing safe schools. Lewis has more than 30 years of experience in working to provide safe schools and communities, including 17 years as the director of school public safety for a large urban school district.
Judy Brunner is cofounder of Edu-Safe and is clinical faculty at Missouri State University.