School Emergency Evacuation Plans
Please note: The following article provides general information that should be considered when developing school emergency evacuation plans. Evacuation planning for certain situations, such as active shooter or terrorist incidents, fall outside the scope and purpose of this article; local law enforcement should be consulted prior to developing such plans.
Schools face many security and safety challenges, some of which require advance planning to ensure an appropriate response. The emergency evacuation of students and staff from school buildings or the campus is one such challenge.
To create effective emergency evacuation procedures, school administrators need to understand the full range of security and life safety risks they face and determine the optimal response to different incidents. Strong partnerships with your local police and fire departments are invaluable toward this goal.
For each potential risk or incident, you must answer the question of whether or not an evacuation will increase security and life safety. In cases of direct physical danger to a building and its occupants—a bomb threat or gas leak, for example—getting everyone outside and as far away from the structure as possible will reduce the risk of injuries. Other situations may not be so clear-cut. For example, depending on the building structure and size of a fire, a defend-in-place may be required for certain fire conditions.
Your emergency evacuation plan must identify interior egress routes, including hallways, stairs, and exit doors. It must stress, for example, that self-closing fire doors at interior corridors and stairs must remain free to swing closed. Remember: When an evacuation is ordered, elevators are to be recalled and placed in “Firemen’s Service” mode immediately. Under no circumstances are they to be used to evacuate.
Your plan should factor in the geography of evacuation routes, possible complications with foot and vehicle traffic, potential points of congestion, and the safest evacuation destinations. Make an objective assessment of buildings, walkways, paths, roads, stairwells, classrooms, dorms, and offices on campus, and how they could affect an actual evacuation.
Plan developers must coordinate with local law enforcement and firefighters. Listen to their recommendations and incorporate those into your plan. Consider the routes they will take in response, and where they are likely to create staging areas to deal with the incident. Evacuation routes and safe areas will reflect this pre-planning intelligence.
Once the physical parameters of an evacuation plan have been mapped out, establish roles and responsibilities for carrying it out. School staff members and security personnel assigned to the school should be assigned clearly defined roles and responsibilities in the evacuation plan and process. Be sure to assign fire wardens and evacuation monitors. Review your security policies to ensure that they support the evacuation plan, and that security personnel are best used—and are trained in—clearing the buildings and ensuring orderly movement to the safe areas.
Good communication is critical. The plan should clearly specify, without ambiguity, how an evacuation order is triggered, and who has the authority to order it. Typically, emergency alarms are followed by public address announcements. However, the plan should include extreme situations in which self-evacuations may be necessary, without waiting for an alarm or announcement. The evacuation plan should clearly detail notification protocols, and include lists of emergency numbers for police, fire, and EMS agencies; public officials; transportation providers; and so forth. Creating reliable channels of communication with students’ parents or guardians are essential.
Internally, staff members should be assigned clear responsibilities for disseminating information about the incident. A well-defined chain of command will include who is authorized to release information, to whom, and through what channels—this especially includes statements to the press.
In the event of an actual emergency, reports of the evacuation may reach parents through the media before officials can make proper notifications. Absent clear communication from the school, media reports may trigger parents or guardians to deploy to the school, potentially complicating security and emergency response. Your plan should include a plan to quickly disseminate official information through email, social media, and text messaging. Using these resources effectively can improve evacuation safety; prevent complications; and keep students, parents, staff, and stakeholders accurately informed.
Once an evacuation plan has been created, it must be practiced at regular intervals. Some states require and mandate the frequency of drills. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that schools conduct fire drills monthly. In addition to the students and staff becoming familiar with the procedures, these drills are a time for school administrators and security managers to evaluate the plan’s effectiveness. Annual reviews of the entire evacuation plan should include the participation of local public safety agencies to ensure that the plans remain up-to-date and that lines of communication with responders remain open.
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