A fire department entering a building through a window, especially one of the second floors, is a less efficient way to mitigate an emergency than entering through a main or secondary entrance point.
The State of Pre-Planning in Schools
When it comes to schools and how they pre-plan, there are many factors involved. All schools, no matter what state they’re in, have to abide by and fulfill state regulations and mandates. Some mandates are funded, but some are not. For example, New York state schools must be in compliance with Project SAVE, an unfunded mandate that requires schools to meet safety and security obligations by having written documentation of floor plans, emergency management plans and safety drills. In most cases, and in my experience, schools only meet the minimum requirements they are forced to; no other action is taken in order to provide an enhanced level of safety. Some schools outsource the compliance work to have their plans reviewed and have gap analyses completed, and therefor go above and beyond state mandates, but most schools are content with only meeting the mandates.
Most schools continue doing things in this same fashion year after year, only making sure their mandates have been met, rather than going beyond state compliances and making changes that strengthen and enhance those mandates. But the process of pre-planning is multi-faceted, with multiple components that deserve multiple parties to provide different areas of expertise. The different components of this planning for schools include things like drills, floor plans, building inspections, code of conduct, and emergency management, and if it’s done right, should be handled by those who are considered experts in their respective fields.
This doesn’t mean that school districts don’t take the steps necessary to make their school buildings a safe environment for their students. But schools can only do so much rigorous pre-planning on their own. They must gain the support of community resources like first responders and emergency managers and use this support to procure their school district the best possible pre-planning solutions. Schools do the best they can when it comes to utilizing the resources most readily available to them. Only through education about and ease of access to new pre-planning tools and methods can we as first responders help schools create safer spaces for their students and staff.
Benefits of Rigorous Pre-Planning for Schools
It is important for schools to not only complete their pre-plans to the best of their abilities and meet their state-mandated requirements, but to utilize the technological advancements available to them — specifically, electronic pre-plans. Like many fire departments, schools still have their pre-plans on paper, and come up against all the challenges that paper pre-plans present.
Having electronic pre-plans for a school — or entire district — has numerous advantages. Firstly, by being in a digital format, plans can be updated and saved faster and easier. The barrier to going above and beyond state-mandated requirements for pre-plans becomes easier to pass when compiling more complete pre-plans that are simpler and less time consuming. Components of pre-plans may change frequently, and having a secure way to compile, store, and view the information will ensure the relevance and correctness of things like contact names and numbers.
Of course the school isn’t the only agency that benefits from electronic pre-plans. First responders like local fire and police would not only have the opportunity to see a digital floor plan to better understand where they are responding, but they can see these documents sooner and faster. Digital pre-plans can be shared within seconds and dispersed to departments with disparate dispatch systems — something that is impossible to do with paper pre-plans.
In addition to first responders gaining a better sense of situational awareness from electronic pre-plans, teachers and students would have the tools to better learn what situational awareness is and how important it can be in the time of an emergency. Many electronic pre-plans come with quick reference cards that provide a bulleted list for the steps to take when responding to an incident; this new information can go a long way when practiced drills are supplemented with it. An incident commander knowing what his or her role during an incident can save them time; electronic pre-plans allow them to access and review drills and procedures when they need to be accessed most. These types of pre-plans are groundbreaking in the fact that this is the first time that building officials like superintendents have access to the same information that first responders do.
But at What Cost?
When implementing a more rigorous emergency preparedness plan, a schools’ greatest concern is cost, and time. How long will it take, and how much will we have to pay out of pocket?
Being that electronic pre-planning services do cost money, there may be some resistance from the school when considering the purchase of a system like this. In this situation, it is important to look at the cost versus the benefit. Implementing electronic pre-plans may cost more than doing the state-mandated minimum, but when natural and man-made disasters occur, multiple things can go wrong, multiple people must be contacted, and information must be easily accessible in its most up-to-date form.
There’s a very good chance that a school district with electronic pre-plans may end up saving money in the long run. They decrease the risk of an incident happening in their district or building, and have plans in place to mitigate the damage caused by the incidents that do happen. Additionally, if an incident were to occur, the district that has opted for the electronic pre-planning process will be able to react more quickly and efficiently than those who did not opt to go electronic.
The time it takes to complete the pre-planning process will vary from building to building. A good indicator of how long a building may take to pre-plan is the quantity of critical infrastructure that exists within that building. An elementary school takes less time than a high school, not only because of things like square footage or number of students, but because grade schools have a smaller amount of critical infrastructure than high schools. The home economics rooms, locker rooms, chemistry labs, athletic fields, art room kilns, etc., all contribute to a longer pre-planning process for high schools.
Initially, the work that is done may seem like a lot. But the truth is, once the plans are converted to digital and electronic; they will be able to thrive forever — only with yearly updates.
Closing the Gap
When it comes to schools, many variables will impact the process and execution of pre-planning. While all schools have different needs and requirements, all can benefit from more rigorous pre-planning. Although meeting state requirements is necessary, strengthening and surpassing them is not. As first responders adopt electronic pre-planning, schools should be encouraged to do the same for their internal responses and emergency preparedness requirements. The initial cost of implementation is small compared to the resources, time, and lives that can be saved with electronic pre-plans in place. The resources or support for pre-planning electronically may not have been available a decade ago, but today these resources and tools are within reach and out there waiting for you
Dennis Amodio is a retired fi refi ghter with the City of New York Fire Departmen t, assigned to Rescue Company 1 (Special Operations). He has extensive experience with engine and truck work, Collapse Rescue Operations, and High Rise Operations. He worked the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sep. 11, 2001 World Trade Center rescue operations. He has taught classes in Truck Tactics, Engine Operations, Team Search, Heavy Rescue, Collapse Rescue, Vehicle Extrication, and Thermal Imaging with American and foreign firefighters. Amodio works to train fi re departments nationally and internationally in effective fi refi ghting and rescue techniques. Currently, he is the Safety Division Director of GEOcommand, Inc. at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, NY.