When I began my career in education, I never expected to be dealing with many of the threats schools face today. While school personnel have always had to face threats such as fire, air quality issues and weather-related concerns such as blizzards and tornadoes, the thought of a school shooting or bomb threat was as distant as the idea of Martians landing on Earth.
Each school day in the United States, 53 million students attend more than 119,000 schools where an additional 6 million adults work as teachers or support staff. This means that on any given weekday more than one-fifth of the population can be found in schools. No other single American institution engages such a large sector of the population as can be found in schools, so it stands to reason that our schools should be the safest place to be when a natural or man-made disaster strikes.
Most public schools and school districts in Minnesota are excellent at responding to emergencies thanks to the many drills they conduct throughout the school year. In Minnesota, schools are required to hold five fire drills, five lockdown drills and one tornado drill every year. In addition, administrators in many schools, including Bemidji Area Schools, conduct “table-top drills” during which they lay out an emergency scenario and discuss how best to respond should a crisis occur. These “what-if’s” are very helpful in preparing schools for various emergency scenarios.
However, when schools and other organizations regard effective emergency management as simply being able to recover from disasters, they neglect the important responsibility of planning for and preventing such emergencies. Schools should not overlook the need to prevent, mitigate and prepare for crisis events. Most schools have safety response plans and checklists in the form of three-ring binders and flip charts. However, these response plans, excellent as they may be, are designed for reacting to an emergency or crisis. My goal is to prevent such events from happening in our schools.
That is why I was pleased to host an organization known as REMS: Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools -- Technical Assistance Center, to assist the Bemidji School District, neighboring school districts, and numerous community agencies in developing emergency operating plans (EOPs) that will work towards preventing crisis situations from occurring. REMS is a branch of the U.S. Department of Education and works in conjunction with FEMA.
The purpose of a school district’s emergency operations plan is to prevent, protect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from crises and emergencies. Having such a plan in place will help our school district analyze and rate situations by taking an all-hazards approach so that our schools, staff and students will be better able to identify potential hazards, prevent and mitigate the effects of such dangers, and be better at responding to events should they occur. Once vulnerabilities are identified, our emergency operating plans will be able to develop measures that, when layered, will help address and mitigate the harm that such threats may pose. A good example of this hazard mitigation is how schools have prevented fires over the years.
Take a look around any school for fire prevention methods. You will find sprinklers, flame-retardant materials, fire alarms, smoke detectors, fire exit signs, evacuation maps, emergency lighting and extinguishers. This level of redundancy could lead a person to believe that schools and fire marshals are overly protective, especially since there hasn’t been a student casualty from a school fire in the United States in over half a century.
But, according to author Jeff Kaye in School Emergency Management, it is this very redundancy that has prevented school fires and kept our children alive. We need to take the same layered approach for all potential crises and emergencies and develop emergency operations plans that assess and measure the likelihood of all potential emergencies, manmade and natural. Then we need to evaluate their probable severity and damage, and develop protective layers to mitigate, prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from all of them.
The development of a cutting-edge emergency operations plan for Bemidji Area Schools is my goal and has been my aim since I started working as the superintendent of this excellent school district. We made great strides by hosting the REMS training earlier this month. Surprisingly, this was the first time that the REMS trainers provided training in any school in Minnesota, so I don’t know who was more excited about this training, me or the presenters who flew in during a very cold week. But one thing is certain: By hosting the REMS training, we made it possible for a number of school districts in northwest Minnesota to learn how to become better at preventing and planning for emergencies. That is a step in the right direction.
I repeat: who would have predicted, three decades ago, that we would need to take this type of action and provide this type of training in our schools? Certainly not I.
Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.