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GAO – Schools (and businesses) not ready for emergency

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: GAO – Schools (and businesses) not ready for emergencyCrisis planning from archives

This is mostly about schools but it absolutely applies to business.

The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog group, says many public schools have not adequately planned for crises.  It’s not that schools have failed to plan; it’s the way they have gone about it.  While virtually all schools have prepared for intruder/hostage situations, bombs or bomb threats, natural disasters, and, to a lesser degree, terrorism; the GAO says schools often do not train with first responders (fire, police, EMS, etc.).  Schools may be able to work rapidly with students but not so well with outside organizations needed for disaster response or long term assistance such as providing off-campus sites for classes during a crisis like a flu pandemic.

The May 2007 GAO report says, “Effective emergency management requires identifying the hazards for which it is necessary to be prepared (risk assessments); establishing clear roles and responsibilities that are effectively communicated and well understood; and developing, maintaining, and mobilizing needed capabilities, such as people, skills, and equipment.” In short, school leaders must brainstorm their greatest threats and how they would respond.

Importantly, the GAO says, “The plans and capabilities should be tested and assessed through realistic exercises that identify strengths and areas that need improvement, with any needed changes made to both plans and capabilities.” That sentence reminds me of the old saying: “An untested plan is no plan at all.”  For example, my drills with corporate clients always disclose breakdowns we did not expect.  One exercise revealed that families frantically calling for information would get lost in voicemail hell.  Reporters too.  This automated system would have badly aggravated a real crisis.  It is now fixed.

The GAO’s specific recommendations on how schools should prepare is at

Frankly, the GAO findings notwithstanding, my experience is that schools probably do a better job of planning and drilling than most everyone else.  For instance, while Virginia Tech was still deciding actions during its recent crisis, neighboring public schools had already implemented lockdowns.  Federal and state mandates partly drive school readiness but I believe school leaders mostly understand that children’s lives are at stake.   Columbine and other school shootings haunt.

For school systems who want to follow the federal government’s lead I have four suggestions:

1. Beware massive, unwieldy plans.  You don’t have the resources to write them, they won’t help, and you probably won’t use them.  Keep them lean yet versatile to adapt to any emergency.

2. Create a great crisis team.  Plans are only as good as the teams that execute them.  A focused plan plus a trained team is your best protection.  I recommend involving about five of your best thinkers in this group.

3. Follow principles.  Guidelines such as take care of victims, notify stakeholders, reassure, and inform the media can speed decision-making and messaging.  See for a list.

4. Drill.  Exercises, whether tabletop or full-scale, bring plans to life, cross-check them, and pressure-proof your organization.

My associates Larry Mabe and Beth McCullough, school veterans each, say local partners should include political leaders, law enforcement, hospitals, emergency management coordinators, and adjacent big companies.  Know how to account for every student, conduct school bus pickups at alternate locations, and mobilize staff and faculty.  North Carolina’s Center for the Prevention of School Violence can help at

A final thought. Corporate America has vastly more resources than schools and could do worse than to follow in the schools’ footsteps.

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