While it may be something most school leaders will never come across in their careers, planning for natural disasters and emergencies is something every school leader must consider, regardless of the size of the facility or its location.
Natural hazards are part of the context for educational planning. Whether it is annual flooding, a one-in-ten year earthquake or a fast-moving bushfire, while we are unable to control these incidents, the impact of these hazards can be mitigated with the application of effective collaboration and leadership.
Shooting incidents overseas, grassfires, and the outbreak of new diseases such as avian influenza have led to increased pressure on schools to achieve higher levels of emergency preparedness. This may be as simple as organising annual flu immunisations or reviewing grounds maintenance requirements.
The reality is that schools need to be prepared for a variety of risks and natural events that could occur at any day at any time.What do principals need to do?
School safety requires a dynamic and continuous process initiated by principals.
School emergency management planning involves:
- Assessment of risks
To achieve this, principals must develop consensus that emergency preparedness is a core responsibility, worthy of serious attention that goes beyond ‘checking off’ fire drills.
Once risks are identified, principals are in a position to seek assistance and support from those with whom they will liaise during a real emergency. School leaders are not first responders, therefore it is crucial that principals communicate and build relationships with emergency response agencies in their own communities. Police and fire agencies, with which schools often have pre-existing relationships, are key liaisons.
In developing emergency management plans principals need to pull together a team to strongly support the planning effort and to develop an emergency management plan that identifies key local risks.
While there are too many scenarios to develop contingency plans for every emergency, planners need to focus not on the source
of threats but rather on their response.
To assist schools develop response, the Emergency Management Division has developed a guide and a set of adaptable emergency management plan templates. These are available at: https://edugate.eduweb.vic.gov.au/sites/emergencymanagement/default.aspx
(DEECD login required)
In leading the response to an emergency, the principal may not necessarily be the person who takes charge of the event. On any given day the principal may not be in the school so the development of a team who have a shared understanding of the processes in place is necessary.
Those selected to lead the school’s Incident Management Team should be identified in advance, given the chance to develop the skills required to perform effectively, and be afforded ample opportunity to become credible in their roles.Practice makes perfect
Developing emergency management plans requires a clear understanding of local risks and hazards, clear allocation of responsibilities, and provision of adequate support and appropriate training.Learning by the book
is not sufficient. Schools should have regular desk-top drills where staff members have the chance to work through simulated emergencies. A short exercise every few months on this type of review can provide clarity and confidence for the team.
Similarly, fire and evacuation drills enhance readiness for staff and students but ultimately principals need to establish a culture that treats these simulations as worthwhile. This includes the opportunity for review following each drill to highlight areas in need of improvement.
An emergency management plan is a constant work-in-progress, and it is never finished.