Safety and Disaster Management

While safety planning is familiar to schools, disaster planning is relatively new to the education sector. Such contingency planning may be seen as an extension of the risk assessment procedure. It is the key to reducing the management of a disaster to a system for making decisions at a time when decision making is difficult. As with all RoSPA guidance, this should be used in conjunction with LEA advice, and any other specialised guidance from professional bodies.

High profile accidents and disasters in the education sector have demonstrated the common sense of disaster planning and, conversely, the often tragic cost of failing to identify hazards and their potential for sudden, dramatic escalation if the arrangements to control and contain them prove to be inadequate.

Effective plans to mitigate the consequences of a disaster will derive from an "all hazards" approach (the "what ifs" and worst-case scenarios - on-site and off-site) and joint consultation with all those likely to be involved.

By planning in advance and anticipating as many health and safety variables as possible, schools can ensure that the decisions made on the day of a crisis are not only made quickly and effectively but that they will be correct and automatic responses arising out of the time spent on pre-planning for disaster.

When an incident does occur, the school should be better able to contain and control events.

Good safety practice

For most schools, disaster planning, or crisis management, is about ensuring that normality returns as soon as possible and that unnecessary damage is not done to the children and staff; or to the valuable relationships built up between the school, parents and the local community. This is consistent with good safety practice and minimises the impact of a disaster.

Personal Tragedies

At the routine level, the most common crisis faced by many schools is helping individual pupils (and staff) cope with bereavement. Occasionally, the need to deal with whole school shock and bereavement occurs after the death or serious injury of a pupil or member of staff, perhaps as a result of a road accident or sudden serious illness. Some schools offer counselling facilities, others arrange to attend funerals and later hold a day of celebration for that person's life.

Personal tragedy, such as death or bereavement, is difficult for any person to handle. Schools need to be aware of the main symptoms which pupils and staff can exhibit when they have been unable to grieve: a decline in performance and an inability to concentrate are two particularly noticeable ones.

The school environment is not always an easy place in which to express feelings and emotions. While most schools are good at celebrating joyful and positive events, many schools find difficulty in coping with sadness and anger. Some children express a fear that their confidence may be betrayed.

Whole school approaches work best

Schools that have developed whole school approaches to health and safety, who have thought seriously about all kinds of sensitive issues such as death and violence – and made plans within the curriculum to explore them, are more likely to be able to cope with and resolve the range and complexity of feelings that a crisis can engender than schools who adopt the "ostrich" approach.

Improving procedures

The process of disaster planning itself often leads to an improvement in procedures which ensures a greater level of safety. Preventive measures are devised which make the likelihood of tragedies and accidents less likely.

Disaster planning and prevention

David Kibble, Headteacher and author or 'Safety and Disaster Management in Schools and Colleges' feels that through the process of disaster planning at his school, everyone became much more conscious of the possibility of preventing disasters. Experience leads him to suggest that while disaster planning on its own is of great value, much more valuable is using disaster planning to devise wise, sensible and prudent precautionary and preventive measures.

In the end, of course, no amount of foresight and planning can completely prevent disasters occurring. Many tragedies are entirely outside the control of the school. However, the school must be prepared to cope with its effects.

Types of school crisis

There are many types of crisis that can affect schools but they fall broadly into two categories: In-school or on-site crises; out-of-school or off-site crises.

In-school/on-site crises

  • Death of pupil or member of staff through accident or illness
  • Fire or flooding of building (or other destruction)
  • A deliberate act of violence such as a knife attack or the use of a firearm
  • A damning OFSTED report made public.

Worst case examples: Aberfan - 116 children and 28 adults killed as huge coal tip slides down a mountain side in Wales and engulfs the whole primary school; Dunblane -the shooting of many young children and a teacher; Wolverhampton - knife attack on young children and their teacher in the St Luke's school playground; Philip Lawrence - head teacher murdered outside the gates of his school while responding to an incident involving pupils; Middlesborough pupil murdered by an intruder in the middle of the school day; Closure of the Ridings School following a disastrous inspection.

"Nationally, damage to school properly caused by fire, theft and vandalism costs around £50 million a year. Nearly 45% of that figure relates to malicious fires."

- Property Risk Management for Schools, Merlin Communications (UK) Ltd

"There have been incidents where staff and pupils have received serious and in some cases fatal injuries, following an attack by an intruder. Lord Cullen's report - The public enquiry into the shooting at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996 - emphasises the need for employers to prepare a safety strategy for the protection of everyone in the school against violence."

- Violence in the education sector HSC (ESAC) publications 1997

Out-of-school/off-site crises

  • Deaths or serious injuries on school trips
  • National tragedies affecting many schools
  • Civil disturbances including acts of terrorism.

Worst case examples: Lyme Bay - pupils drowned during an outdoor pursuits activity; M40 crash - twelve pupils and a teacher killed when their minibus crashed into another vehicle on the hard shoulder of the M40; Bolton - three pupils killed in a coach accident on a school trip to France; Murder abroad - school girl murdered in French hostel on school visit; The Jupiter - educational cruise ship with 400 pupils on board sinks 45 minutes after being hit by an Italian tanker; Hillsborough - deaths and injuries at a football match; Herald of Free Enterprise - ferry sinks with the loss of many lives; Ronan Point - explosion in a tower block; Lockerbie - act of terrorism sends aircraft crashing into a community .

Summary: Six good reasons for preparing a disaster plan

  1. It is good health and safety management
  2. It improves procedures leading to greater levels of health and safety
  3. It reduces the amount of thinking time necessary after an incident has occurred
  4. It contains the incident and minimises the extent of the damage
  5. It enables you to meet obligations under various health and safety regulations and requirements
  6. It leads to an awareness of the possibilities of preventing disasters from happening in the first place.

Getting Started

Who should prepare the plan?

A planning team of key personnel should be formed. Team managers should reflect a cross section from the school site and or the school's activities. Team effort is important. The involvement of the LEA (if appropriate), school managers, all staff, the emergency services and the appropriate specialist bodies and organisations at the planning stages can eliminate many potential problems when disaster strikes. The final disaster plan will only be as good as the information received at the input stage.

It takes time

After this initial stage, the team should co-ordinate to formulate the final plan which will need testing, cross-checking and further consultation with outside bodies. This takes time. Schools should not expect to produce such a plan within days or even a few weeks.

The plan should be published and issued to relevant personnel. It should be instantly accessible to all those who will have a key role in putting the plan into action in the event of a real-life crisis

Once the final plan is published, it should be reviewed from time to time. In the light of experience, changes may need to be made. Key personnel should always have the "latest" version of the plan.

Free-flow versus confidentiality

Where possible, the free flow or information is desirable. However, if problems arise concerning the confidentiality of sensitive information, it may be possible to omit this from the main plan and give the information only to those who "need to know".

Existing plans - a good starting point

Although drawing up an emergency disaster plan may seem daunting, the planning team probably have many of the procedures and resources already available to them (school minibus safety policy, school trips policy, security policy; general health and safety policy etc.) This information can be re-organised to form a framework for the wider safety and disaster management plan.

What schools need to do

  1. Identify potential critical incidents (risk assessment). What might happen on-site and off-site? Who might he harmed and how? Do you already have plans for coping with such disasters? Are these sufficient to control the risks or do you need to do more?
  2. Identify available support agencies and other people who can help. Does your LEA (if appropriate) have outline plans for disaster management you can use as a framework?
  3. Develop your own written Safety and Disaster Management Plan;
  4. Clarify the roles and responsibilities of all personnel;
  5. Ensure key personnel and their deputies are warned to handle their roles and responsibilities.

General precautionary measures to consider

  • Carry out a full risk assessment for your school. This is a requirement under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992
  • Where hazards are identified take appropriate professional advice to minimise risk and protect the health and safety of pupils, staff and other persons
  • Establish and practise evacuation procedures for fire, bomb threats and other emergencies. Do not assume that all exit routes will remain open. Consider also where you will put the pupils if the school building has to be evacuated
  • Attend to issues such as: school security: violence; school trip procedures; health issues; first aid
  • Know your school community and attend to local issues - e.g. Where is your school sited - near a main road? Near a body of water? Near a railway line? Near a chemical plant?
  • Develop a positive relationship with your local media.

Special precautionary measures to consider

  • Designate one room in the school as an incident centre. Ideally this room should have telephone and fax communication and should be big enough for its emergency role
  • Establish disaster management roles and responsibilities for staff. You might consider the following suggestions, assuming you have the human resources:
    • A senior member of staff, not the head, should be responsible for co-ordinating emergency assistance. This does not mean dialling 999. It does mean liaison with the emergency services once they arrive
    • A different member of staff should deal with pupils and staff on site, making decisions about whether teaching can continue, keeping staff informed and generally attempting to keep disruption to a minimum
    • One member of staff should deal with those directly affected compiling details of any casualties
    • Someone needs to keep a detailed written log of all events
    • One person needs to be responsible for communicating with the media. This person becomes the Press Officer for the school. Whoever this person is, and it is often the headteacher, they should have had some training in that role as without training they are likely to make some very public mistakes
    • Ensure that alternative, or deputy, role holders are appointed
  • Ensure that any teacher outside the school boundaries with a group leaves all essential information with the school
  • Ensure that staff with key roles, and their deputies, are not only trained to handle their responsibilities but are also given opportunities to practise those roles and procedures through simulated activities.

The stages of disaster management

"Most schools will have no experience of disasters and when they do occur much of the response is a 'flying by the seat of one's pants' activity. This is why two things are particularly important: ensuring there is a ready made plan to help deal with the incident, and ensuring that there is an adequate command and control system."

- David G Kibble

At all stages, good communication is vital to the successful management of any crisis.

Stage 1: Disaster Management Plans: Be Prepared

Carry out risk assessments of activities in as many areas of school life as possible. Once hazards have been identified, good management is about controlling the risks and reducing the potential for harm.

Schools must assume that, at some time, there will be a crisis that needs to be dealt with. In such events, staff and pupils should know where to find help. All emergency control actions, not just fire drills, should be practised regularly. Roles should be set out in advance, so that if the unthinkable happens, everyone knows exactly what they are expected to do.

Give some consideration to what you will do with the children in an emergency. Think twice about simply sending them home after a major trauma. It may be possible to find other places to take them.

Your school may also be a designated Emergency Rest Centre. In this case, you need to plan for major community events and disasters - e.g. a flood.

Stage 2: Incident Management: Take control

When a crisis occurs, the first task is to gather as much information as possible and to relay it to the senior management team who will then need to control the flow and exchange of information with all other relevant people on and off site. Tell the truth simply and without fabrication. Once the news is out, the school is likely to be inundated with enquiries.

Managing the Media

Build good relationships with the media before you ever have a crisis. Let your local press know what is going on in your school on a regular basis. Let them celebrate the good times with you so that they can support you through the bad times. The press can be formidable allies in a crisis.

When a crisis does occur, children, parents, staff, and especially the head teacher, will need protecting from the glare of publicity that will ensue. Reporters are looking for a story to make the news headlines. Rumour and supposition will be treated as seriously as hard fact . This is where good, clear communication is of paramount importance.

Ideally, the school should appoint a Press Officer to deal with media attention. This person must be skilled in dealing with the press and will hopefully have received some training. Anyone emotionally involved in the crisis should not talk to the press. Making an unguarded comment while speaking "on the record" can live on for years. Training in media relations for senior managers and elected members or school governors might be something every school should consider.

Refusing to speak with someone from the media may lead to an unfavourable report. If you are helpful to reporters and photographers, they will remember it.

Have a written statement which acknowledges the problem or crisis and which states that you are looking into the matter. Get yourself some thinking time so that you can prepare accurate statements for the press, and then give them regular updates and news bulletins.

Stage 3: Post Disaster Management: Recovery

Schools do need to be aware of the range of symptoms children and teachers may show after a traumatic event. Never underestimate the traumatic effects of a major crisis on people's lives. Never try to forget that it happened or ignore it. Anniversaries serve as reminders whether we like it or not. There may still be funerals to attend, legal processes to get through and people to support.

The first task, once the immediate crisis is over, is to restore some sense of security to the school and in the lives of all those affected. Debrief the staff. (This could be done by a professional outsider.) Stick to normal school routines as far as possible. Set up support systems for children and staff who will need to talk about and share their feelings. This might include counselling services and specialist treatment for those at the heart of the crisis.

Monitor the situation on a regular basis. Watch for "survivor guilt" and look particularly for major changes in behaviour which may suggest PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Very young children may show regressive and anti-social behaviour. Getting the children to draw pictures and write about it may not be the answer and, in some cases, this may do more harm than good.

Those most likely to be affected by a crisis

William Yule and Anne Gold, authors of ‘Wise before the event, coping with crises in schools' suggest that those most likely to be affected by the crisis are:

  • Those whose lives were at the greatest risk
  • Those who witness death and carnage (violent act or accident)
  • Children from unstable homes (where support systems are lacking)
  • Less able children
  • Very young children. They may continue to re-live the event until they have enough maturity to understand and cope with it.

Disaster! Who can help?

The following contacts may be useful when managing a crisis. Make sure you have the names of key personnel with addresses and direct telephone numbers.

  • Director of Education
  • Chair of Governing Body
  • Home School Liaison Officer
  • Education Social Worker
  • Social Services (Area Team Leader)
  • Emergency Services - Ambulance, Police, Fire Brigade
  • Medical Team - School Doctor, School Nurse
  • Emergency Dept at local hospital
  • Emotional/Behavioural Support Team - Educational Psychologist, Clinical Child Psychologist, Child Guidance Clinic
  • Counselling Services
  • Local Religious Group Leaders
  • Local Press and Media Contacts

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