Tuesday, May 22, 2007

School Emergency Preparedness

Some revealing information in new GAO testimony on school district emergency preparedness.

Like businesses and public agencies, schools are not adequately prepared for pandemic flu:

[B]ased on GAO’s survey of a sample of public school districts, an estimated 56 percent of all school districts have not employed any procedures in their plans for continuing student education in the event of an extended school closure, such as might occur during a pandemic, and many do not include procedures for special needs students.
It's worth remembering that school closures are an important tool in slowing the spread of a pandemic, as St. Louis learned during the 1918-19 Spanish flu:
St. Louis closed its schools at a time when flu was causing 21 more deaths per 100,000 people per week than what had been seen in previous years. That step -- the earliest taken by any of 33 cities analyzed so far -- appears to have reduced St. Louis's flu mortality by 70 percent.
GAO also found there is not enough collaboration with the community in developing emergency plans:
Fewer than half of school districts with emergency management plans involve community partners such as the local head of government (43 percent) or the local public health agency (42 percent) when developing and updating their emergency management plans, as recommended by HHS.
... or with training:
[W]e estimate that 29 percent of all school districts train with community partners [such as local government and local public health entities].

Specifically, there is not enough collaboration with the first responder community:
[S]chool districts are generally not training with their first responders (i.e., law enforcement, fire, and Emergency Medical Services [EMS]) and community partners (such as the local head of government and local public health agency).

Based on our survey, we estimate that 27 percent of all school districts with emergency management plans have never trained with any first responders on how to implement the plans...

Based on our survey of school districts, an estimated 39 percent of districts with emergency plans experience challenges in communicating and coordinating with local first responders. Specifically, these school districts experience a lack of partnerships with all or specific first responders, limited time or funding to collaborate with first responders on plans for emergencies, or a lack of interoperability between the equipment used by the school district and equipment used by first responders.
Some emergency plans are almost certainly out of date, too:
10 percent of all school districts had never updated their plans.
Another finding is that just 86 percent of urban schools and 70 percent of rural schools have multi-hazard emergency plans that specifically address the threat of terrorism. Really, it should be 100 percent, given the experience in Beslan and the fact that Osama bin Laden has said:
[T]his prohibition of the killing of children and innocents is not absolute. It is not absolute. There are other texts that restrict it.

If they kill our women and our innocent people, we will kill their women and their innocent people until they stop.
History shows that schools are vulnerable to many threats, and collaboration with the community is essential to preparation.

Update 2007-05-23: Today's Open Source Daily Brief (subscription req'd) at IPS also deals with the risk of terrorism in schools, reasserting the need for collaboration between school authorities and first responders. An excerpt:
Speaking at an anti-terrorism conference sponsored by the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (ret.) and Sgt. Todd Rassa cautioned that the 2004 Beslan, Russia, school hostage crisis, in which nearly 200 children died, provides a grim dress rehearsal for what we could expect in America.

Given the activation time required for SWAT units, the speakers asserted that officers on routine patrol will likely be called upon to respond immediately to a school attack. Accordingly, among their recommendations for police departments to prepare for this threat include the following:
  • work with school officials to anticipate problems, including cross-training on crowd-control tactics, and realistically rewrite emergency plans including school lock-down procedures
  • thoroughly familiarize each officer with the floor plans of schools in their jurisdiction

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