In An Emergency

Sep 2, 2017 by

Planning for the worse.

All Eyes on Houston

Hurricane Harvey arrived just in time for the beginning of the new school year in Texas.  As the storm looped its way through the state, it impacted the education of over a million students in some 244 school districts.  Although some of those students experienced minimal disruptions, hundreds of thousands have experienced postponed schedules, damaged facilities and struggling communities in the aftermath of this unprecedented storm.  Houston suffered days of rain following the initial landfall of Harvey and flooding of grave proportions.  Many of the 280 facilities of the Houston Independent School District have experienced roof damage and water intrusion and several remain unreachable by school officials. School was scheduled to begin on Monday, August 28th, but district officials have postponed the opening to September 11th, and that may be a challenge considering the numerous uncertainties facing this community.

Hurricanes are just one of the many disasters or emergencies that may impact the education of students in the United States.  The wildfires of western states, tornadoes of the plains and earthquakes from the numerous seismic zones in the US are just a few of the natural disasters educators may face.  Manmade disasters like chemical spills, train derailments or school shootings only compound the apparent need for detailed emergency planning among school leaders and the larger community.  Currently, 33 states require schools to have comprehensive disaster or emergency plans and FEMA regulations require National Incident Management System (NIMS) compliance for any school receiving federal funds.

The Six Step Plan

There is a wealth of resources available on disaster planning for school officials. They universally promote a six step process to properly develop a comprehensive disaster plan.  In the first step a team of shareholders is recruited.  They might include teachers and principals as well as public safety officials, public works officials and parents.  In the second step, the group meets to identify and assess possible threats.  This process should consider natural and manmade threats and how they may effect a specific community.  With the third step, goals and objectives are set in relation to the previously identified threats.  For example, the safe evacuation of students in the event of fire would be basic goal, while evacuation of the school building within three minutes of an alarm would be a more specific objective, yes three minutes of all students, including those disabled or differently abled.  In Step Four, specific plans to address prioritized threats are developed.  This may be a lengthy process, but collaboration among shareholders can guide the development of comprehensive and detailed plans.  In the 5th step, preparations are made for the completion of the plans developed in the previous step.  As part of that preparation, any approvals, inspections or resources should be secured.  In the final and sixth step, the plans are enacted and disseminated to the larger community.

For the Students and Staff

As reassuring as process and procedure may be to some administrators, it is important to be mindful of the human factor in any disaster or traumatic event.  For the educators and administrators of a school, it may be imperative to recover and reopen a school following any disruptive event, but that may not coincide with the needs of a student who has lost their worldly possessions and is struggling with hunger and hygiene issues.  The faculty and staff of a school may take refuge in their work following a disaster, but they may have more pressing concerns like the well-being of their own family and shelter to address before resuming their professional lives.  Be prepared to address the physical and emotional well-being of your school community.  In Houston, schools providing counseling and three meals a day for students when school re-opens. They have relaxed the dress code through January of 2018.

For the Community

The emergency planning process requires meaningful collaboration among numerous community shareholders.  Collaboration is really key to the process.  Schools represent both a physical and psychological resource for the larger community.  Many schools are called on to open their doors as shelters in disasters.  They also serve as command centers and community kitchens during emergencies.  But perhaps most importantly, schools represent normalcy.  No matter how difficult the situation may seem, the reassurance of a functioning local school inspires confidence and hope among the citizenry.  Proper planning safeguards survival and ultimate recovery of your school and community, no matter what disaster the future brings.

Keywords: emergency preparedness, disaster relief, PK12 Schools, school leadership, school safety

Comment Below on what best practices your school or community has in place regarding emergency procedures.


Chung S, Danielson J, Shannon M. (December 2008).  School-based emergency preparedness: a national analysis and recommended protocol. AHRQ Publication No. 09-0013. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Retrieved from:

HISD Classes to Begin Sept. 11 for 218,000 students. (2017, September 1). Retrieved from

Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). (2010). Minimum Standards Handbook. Retrieved from:

Multihazard Emergency Planning for Schools Site Index. (2017, September 1). FEMA. Retrieved from:

School Safety Plans: A Snapshot of Legislative Action. (2017, September 1). Retrieved from

Toppo, G. (2017, August 30). Harvey wreaks havoc on Houston schools. USA Today. Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2010, November). Developing and Maintaining Emergency Operation Plans. Retrieved from:

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