EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — July 27, 2005

School-centered Emergency Management
Bridging the Gap

Jo Schweikhard Moss
Crisis Management Coordinator
Travis County School Safety Consortium

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene Moore and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our topic today is "School-centered Emergency Management: Bridging the Gap."

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today's speaker. A journalist by trade, Jo Schweikhard Moss has been an emergency manager for almost 20 years, beginning as a local coordinator in Parker County, Texas. She moved to Austin in 1992 as Public Information Officer for the Governor's Division of Emergency Management where she developed the public information annex to the state plan. In addition to managing the public information function for dozens of disasters and coordinating award-winning public education efforts, she also taught many of us in Texas the ins and outs of media relations. Following a stint at the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Travis County School Safety Consortium selected her to coordinate the area's first Emergency Response and Crisis Management grant to bring emergency preparedness into school systems.

Please see the Background Page for further biographical information and links to topic-related material. Welcome to the Forum Jo, and thank you very much for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Jo Moss: Thanks Amy. Today's schools play a unique role in emergency management. Charged with safety and care of children, school district administrators, faculty and staff, must be able to respond appropriately in any crisis, whether natural or human caused. They must realize that their actions at the onset of an event, as well as the actions they take before and after a crisis, occurs have a major affect on how an incident progresses. The time is past when districts could prepare minimally for a few basic scenarios. In today's environment, it is neither prudent nor possible to predict every eventuality.

Developing all-hazard emergency plans and training staff and students puts districts on the cutting edge of school safety, especially in an era when schools are on the "soft target list". It gives district administrators a comprehensive and proactive tool for managing a variety of critical events, no matter their scope.

During the past year, school districts in the Austin (Texas) metropolitan area combined forces to build a school-centered emergency management program that incorporates the four phases of emergency management - mitigation/prevention, preparedness, response and recovery - as well as NIMS. The resulting plans are specific to individual districts yet possess a commonality to ensure smooth and coordinated management of any major emergency or disaster. They also are supported with appropriate training at all levels from student to administration and with an exercise program to test readiness.

We are not reinventing the wheel. In fact, our plans mirror the local Emergency Operations Plans and complement the state plan. They have portability and sustainability that is consistent from campus to campus, grade to grade and that encompass all district facilities. This helps first responders, faculty and staff. It also benefits our students as they progress from grade to grade, because they know what is expected of them in emergency situations.

The consortium meets monthly to work on planning, training and exercise. Meetings also include information sharing and "mini" seminars. Representatives of public safety, emergency management and public health are regular consortium participants and strong partners in this process.

Early on, I realized that emergency management concepts are relatively new for most school districts and we truly had to crawl before we could walk. School systems traditionally are reactive when it comes to dealing with crises. Comprehensive, all-hazard emergency planning gives them a proactive tool that expands and contracts with each incident and is a good fit in school settings. This flies in the face of the traditional flipchart system of "preparedness" to which many districts cling.

Since schools are active proponents of best practices, change is possible. School-centered emergency management is a best practice. It improves internal and external response and increases parent and community confidence. It allows schools to manage incidents effectively and efficiently from inception to the resumption of classes. It also limits liability and is cost effective.

Resistance to changes in the way schools plan for emergencies surprisingly comes from both the school systems and the public safety community. Because of the unique demands of schools and student accountability, school officials become protective of assets and information when emergencies occur.

The public safety community in turn perceives this guarded approach as a lack of cooperation. This is where emergency managers must play a critical role as facilitators to bridge the gap. This kind of facilitation has helped up address key issues and to share our lessons learned with other districts. In the process, I have encountered some common misconceptions among districts nationwide. This includes that planning only need cover a period long enough for first responders to arrive. Many schools had what I call 15-minute plans.

Another area involves schools as resources. While school officials are aware that they may be called upon to help, most are unaware of the extent of those resource lists. This is important for emergency managers to know since school resource availability is changing dramatically, especially as it related to transportation, food services and shelter designations.

Perhaps the biggest concern for school officials continues to be accounting for students and ensuring appropriate reunification with "family members." This requires ongoing coordination with schools. First responders must know that releasing a young person to a "parent" without coordinating with the school can cause problems. They also must remember that closing school or moving students is not necessarily a simple or timely process. The same applies to reopening schools after an event. Remember, too, that there are many "fragile" students on school campuses and the impact of even a minor event can affect them both physically and emotionally. Often school faculty and staff are best equipped to manage these situations.

We have to build credibility between our school and public safety communities. Open dialogue, problem solving and simple tabletop exercises have been good tools. By starting with the basics and moving forward, we have good buy in not only from school officials, but also from the community at large. If you look at these examples, communication obviously is the first step in developing strong, school-centered emergency management in schools.

We've taken baby steps here and have learned that, even with new legislation in Texas that mandates emergency planning and training before the end of the upcoming school year, we can't start in the middle or expect immediate buy in from schools. In addition, as school systems develop emergency management programs, local emergency managers must do likewise and revise local plans to reflect changing and enhanced school capabilities.

Austin-Travis County Office of Emergency Management in particular has been an incredible resource, helping our districts work through the preparedness process and serving as problem solvers and facilitators. Their efforts have given our school districts confidence to step into the bigger emergency management picture. I also have become a firm believer in working as a consortium, by sharing ideas and issues our districts do not feel like they are alone. The cohesive team is one that makes this process cost effective as well.

Our districts have discovered that there are many grassroots resources available to them that better meet their needs and cost very little. The biggest investment of districts to date has been time and talent. And, to be honest, time is very valuable to our educators.

While our schools are better prepared for emergencies of all kinds, there are more partnerships to forge and an overriding need for additional coordination. School-centered emergency management for schools is in its infancy. The consortium has only scratched the surface of a program that is essential to a safe learning environment. It is a program that needs public safety and community support to become more widespread and integrated in approach.

I welcome any questions or insight you can share. For that, I will turn the session back over to our Moderator.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Jo. Now, to proceed to your questions.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Charles Thomas: Team building is an important part of the early stages. We also get local businesses involved. Do you?

Jo Moss: Yes, in fact, one of the best ways we've found to involve both local businesses and parents is through the development of Go Kits. Those are the school equivalent of disaster supply kits and vary from principal/administrative office to health office to classroom. The kits for classroom, in particular, are tailored to the specific grade level and student needs. By involving parents and businesses in this process, we can offset costs and increase buy in. Also, business involvement can provide a valuable tool for hazard analysis.

Scott Eyestone: Do you ever have parents, as volunteers, engage in the planning process? If so, how did their involvement work out?

Jo Moss: This is a very interesting aspect of the planning process and one that has evolved with our planning. Parents (and students) provide valuable insight, but you have to be very restrictive and protective of that process for security purposes in particular. So, yes, we involve parents in the planning process and in support efforts such as Go Kits, but that involvement is not as simple as it seems on the surface.

Rick Tobin: Sounds like there should be a book out there, "Building Bridges For Public Trust--How to Communicate with Stakeholders In Public School Emergency Readiness." Did you ever see anything like that, Jo? Based on your successes, it seems like a lot of folks working this issue could use that guidance. Any thoughts?

Jo Moss: Yes. Books and articles are good, but I am a very firm believe in grassroots approaches to emergency preparedness. Whether working with schools or in any other area of emergency management, people who "know their backyards best" can better tailor their preparedness to the unique needs of their community. Thus, the consortium works well. And, as I said, close collaboration with your local emergency managers is invaluable.

Scott Vander Molen: Have you looked at the SEMS standard used by California schools?

Jo Moss: Yes. There is a lot of good work there and we've used some of those models, as well as from other areas of the country. It's important to remember that in emergency preparedness, especially for school there is not a one-size fits all approach. We often have to Texas-ize what we do to meet our local needs and legislation.

Chris Utzinger: What does implementing NIMS in schools exactly entail beyond adopting the Incident Command System as command structure?

Jo Moss: Regarding NIMS for schools, I've found that we must start with the very basics. I tried a more extensive approach and set a record for the old "eyes glazing over" syndrome. We're looking at unified command, and again taking baby steps toward full NIMS implementation.

Ray Pena: Does the school/district have an emergency program manager or does the local EMA manage the school/district EM program?

Jo Moss: Texas school districts are known as Independent School Districts and are autonomous. Some school districts have emergency managers or emergency management components within their system. It's one of those facets that we are expanding now. For example, in Austin ISD, we have a person that oversees the emergency management for the district and are in the process of identifying emergency managers for each campus AND facility. In school planning, don't overlook facilities, particularly administration buildings. They tend to be the ones without plans at all and are the most vulnerable.

Terry Bruns: You answered some of my question with your response to Chris but to clarify, do your individual schools have ICS/NIMS plans specific to each school and are these linked to a District specific ICS/NIMS compliant plans that in turn links to the city / county EOC? Also how have you dealt with overtime issues in training faculty?

Jo Moss: Each campus or facility has its own ICS structure that is linked to district command and up to the city/county EOC, where schools have representation as well and we're looking at expanding that role. As far as teacher overtime, we’re having to break some of the larger training -- such as Multi-Hazard Emergency Planning for Schools, which we deliver at least quarterly -- into smaller segments with some on-line preparation. When possible, we also offer stipends.

Linda Morin: Have you used city/county hazard analyses in your planning process?

Jo Moss: Yes, we have used their hazard mitigation plans, hazard analysis and almost every other tool they have available. We meet regularly and discuss issues. As a result, not only have we been able to fine tune our plans but the city and county have been open to adapting and updating their plans to reflect our changes. Stacy Moore from Travis County Emergency Management is with us today and deserves a great pat on the back for facilitating that process!

Katina Blue: Thank you. You mentioned Go Kits for schools; what types of items are in the kits?

Jo Moss: They vary. Obviously a nurse’s or health office kit will include information about medically fragile students, faculty and staff, medication lists and basic first aid, and we try to include school photos or yearbooks in all kits. That way we can identify students with special needs, those who are missing, and even suspects as we coordinate with public safety.

As for the classroom kits, we recommend: flashlights, bullhorns or whistles, an extra set of keys, rosters, and for elementary students, items to keep them occupied and allay fears. Snacks also can be good, non-perishable. One of my districts has solved the water problem by maintaining an overstock for cafeteria and vending machines. That way the supply is kept fresh and is readily available.

For the Principal IC kit, we recommend: Command Post identifier, emergency plan/support documents, pager/cell phone/radio, master keys, facility floor plans/maps/photos, writing surface, such as dry erase board, bullhorn/whistle, flashlights, extra batteries, disposable camera, clipboards/other supplies, lists/rosters (phone, students, health, staff, etc.), student release/sign-out sheets, telephone book, yearbooks/school pictures.

Isabel McCurdy: Jo, are these school emergency managers paid or volunteer positions?

Jo Moss: They are faculty and staff who received the assignment as a natural extension of their other duties or under that wonderful job description tool of "All other duties as assigned."

Gilbert Gibbs: What is the ballpark figure for an EM in a school district, overall? (Money, primarily, for the tax base.)

Jo Moss: The fiscal notes for Senate Bill 11 -- Texas’ new mandate for emergency planning -- put it at about $5,000 per campus. I think it is dependent upon the partnerships and teamwork you have in place. I've been amazed at how cost effective we can make the process.

As background for everyone else, this need is highlighted by the enactment of Texas Senate Bill 11, signed by Gov. Rick Perry on June 11, 2005, and effective Sept. 1, 2005. The legislation mandates that, "Each school district shall adopt and implement a multi-hazard emergency operations plan for use in district schools. The plan must address mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery." The legislation requires that district employees be trained in responding to an emergency, that schools conduct mandatory drills to prepare district students and employees for responding to emergencies, that districts establish measures to ensure coordination with local emergency management agencies, law enforcement and fire departments in the event of an emergency and implement a security audit of district facilities on a schedule of "at least once every three years."

Amy Sebring: Jo, are you finding any other crossover type benefits? I am thinking in particular of potential for involving school nurses in bioterrorism planning for example.

Jo Moss: Yes, building partnerships is very valuable and we have been able to do a lot of crossover training and taken advantage of an incredible resource in our schools. And, we can extend many of those resources back to our community. This includes the bioterrorism training, access to bilingual and special needs services, and training. One good example of our progress has involved hurricane evacuation planning.

Rick Tobin: There are some requirements and a few standards for school planning out there. Did you find them helpful or challenging when it came to actually designing effective programs?

Jo Moss: A little of both. One of my concerns has been school tendency to address emergency management as emergency response and crisis management. The problem with Emergency Response and Crisis Management as a "title" is that it is misleading. The ER-CM approach is not all-hazard and many schools tend to view that title as heavy on mental health and light on everything else.

The advantage to requirements such as SB 11 for us in Texas is that it does increase the focus on the need for emergency preparedness. Emergency management in schools often falls victim to denial (it won't happen here) to superstition (if you talk about it, then bad things will happen). Also, it's hard to strike the balance between educating (and testing) our students and keeping them safe. In my book, a safe and secure school facilitates the positive learning environment that makes the rest possible and/or easier. Not everyone in school systems sees it that way.

Michaela Kekedy: What mechanisms have you found to be most effective in dealing with the inevitable that (1) some key personnel involved in planning will be unavailable during an incident (vacation, illness, resignation, retirement, etc.) and (2) the newbies need to buy-in and get up to speed quickly?

Jo Moss: We've done two things. First is that we are ensuring that all of our plans and assignments are redundant. In our plans, we assign responsibilities and functions by title. Second, we have an ongoing schedule of training and exercise. New employees are made aware of the emergency management functions, and as our process evolves will be mandated to start with some basic training that we are now working to include an online orientation. All employees, depending upon their role in the process, are required to take emergency management training each year and once that is completed, must have refresher sessions as well. That training ranges from the two-day multi-hazard for schools for emergency managers, school resource officers (cops on campus), and other key figures to one-hour overview sessions for volunteers.

Avagene Moore: Do the school districts use templates or model plans for guidance? Are they general type plans - all hazards? Annexes?

Jo Moss: Our Emergency Operations Plans are multi-level and mirror the format of city and county emergency plans. We have built a Basic Plan template/model for the district level that ensures consistency among districts, but can be tailored to individual needs. It is supported by attachments and annexes. We also have a facility/campus template that can be tailored likewise.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. Thank you very much Jo for an excellent job. We hope you enjoyed the experience.

Jo Moss: By the way I can be contacted at jmoss at austinisd.org

Amy Sebring: Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Jo for a fine job.