Schools should be safe spaces where students are free to learn, grow, and develop. But districts must also be prepared for emergencies of all kinds, which is why Texas requires all school districts and community colleges to develop an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). An EOP is a critical resource to help you protect your students and employees in all situations.
What is an EOP?
“An emergency operations plan is a document or set of strategies and guidance that federal, state, and local jurisdictions, as well as school districts use as a starting point for a response to a variety of incidents,” said Melanie Moss, TASB Risk Solutions Emergency Management and School Security Consultant. An EOP is not a set of procedural guidelines or guarantees; rather, it provides a framework for emergency response that can be adapted to prepare your district for a variety of situations.
Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code mandates that an EOP address five main program phases for emergency management:
State law requires that all districts assemble a school safety and security committee to oversee emergency response efforts, including the development and implementation of the EOP. Your EOP should be adaptable and regularly updated to meet the needs of your district, community, and first responders. An effective EOP includes thorough preparation, drilling, and practice.
Why do you need an EOP?
Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code and Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code require that all Texas schools and junior colleges develop emergency operations plans. Without an EOP, you risk losing funding for your district, and worse yet, you put your staff and students at greater risk in the event of an emergency.
“At its core, an EOP is meant to build a safe, secure, and healthy learning environment,” Moss said. “School districts and community colleges develop operations plans because they want to ensure that schools remain safe havens for education. They care about their students and want to take action that keeps their faculty and staff safe.”
For safety and funding, your EOP should be up to date. All districts are required by law to update their EOP at least once every three years. However, to keep your district as safe as possible, review your plan annually. It should also be frequently updated to reflect lessons learned in emergency incidents or drills.
How do you develop your plan?
It might be tempting to try and fill out an EOP template for your school on your own. However, a quality EOP should be created with the needs and expertise of your entire community in mind. Consult with representatives of your school and safety experts while you work on your EOP template, so your plan can be customized and personalized to meet your organization’s unique safety requirements. Moss explains that this strategy is known as a “whole community approach,” which ensures that your EOP reflects the needs of the school and all its stakeholders.
Your EOP should be a collaboration of first responders and school representatives. Include a cross-section of school administrators, faculty, board members, and staff, as well as law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, and community leaders in your EOP development and review committee. Set up regular safety and security meetings with your committee to discuss ways to address your school’s needs.
Once your committee is established, perform a hazard analysis. This is a process of assessing your organization’s hazards, which can include natural, technological, and security-related potential emergencies. You can determine your organization’s level of risk for each hazard by considering the following factors:
- Probability: How likely is it that your school will face this specific risk?
- Magnitude: How severe is the risk? Are its effects negligible, limited, critical, or catastrophic?
- Warning: How far in advance might you know about this hazard? Will you have days to prepare, or can it strike within a few hours?
- Duration: How long will the hazard last? Does it only continue for a few minutes, several hours, or much longer?
Based on this analysis, assess whether your risk for each hazard is low, medium, or high. For example, if your area is prone to hurricanes that cause limited damages, last less than three hours, and can be monitored for hours in advance, then you might classify your hurricane risk as medium.
Remember that some risks are unique to the school setting. With so many students regularly gathered at your school, you need to account for risks related to transportation, food services, student relations, and other daily activities. While these are not usually risk considerations within the wider first responder and emergency management community, do not be afraid to include them in your assessment process.
How do you address risks?
Once you have assessed all existing and potential risks in your district, develop plans to respond to them. The State requires two emergency management phases to address risks: prevention and mitigation.
Prevention activities are meant to keep emergencies from occurring. This is often achieved through training programs and intervention responses. For instance, you can train your employees in situational awareness to prevent injuries related to slips, trips, and falls. Investing in mental health and other social services can also prevent tragedies by fostering a healthy and connected school climate.
Mitigation activities reduce the effects of emergencies that cannot be prevented. While you cannot stop a hailstorm from happening, you can protect your property with hail guards to mitigate loss. Similarly, while it is often impossible to predict when an unwanted or unsafe intruder will appear on your campus, you can reduce the threats of these risks by implementing visitor management strategies. These include monitoring entrances, locking doors from the outside, requiring photo ID for entry, and installing camera surveillance systems on campus.
Regardless of how you approach your risk, always consult your legal counsel to make sure your EOP meets state and district guidelines.
What response strategies should an EOP include?
Your EOP must be adaptable. It should be broad enough to prepare you for unanticipated risks, so you can be ready when emergencies occur. Few can predict incidents or health crises, but with an EOP built on all-hazards emergency concepts, your district can be prepared to respond.
“All emergency operations plans are strategy-based,” Moss said, emphasizing that an effective plan should work for “all hazards, all times, and all places.” You can accomplish this by developing an all-hazards EOP, which consists of response strategies that can work for a variety of situations. This usually includes six standard procedures:
- Evacuation: remove staff and students from school property to avoid a threat. Potential causes for an evacuation include a fire in your school building, structural damage, or active violence.
- Lockdown: remove people from a life-threatening situation and, to the extent possible, isolate the danger. Causes for a lockdown typically include acts of violence from an armed intruder or other life-threatening events.
- Reverse evacuation: move staff and students from outside the school building to the inside. Reasons for a reverse evacuation may include the presence of a suspicious or violent individual near or on school grounds, hazardous chemical materials outside, dangerous animals, and other outdoor threats.
- Shelter-in-place: take shelter within a safe location when it is dangerous to be outdoors. It is most often used to protect students from the release of hazardous materials.
- Weather response: monitor severe weather and respond appropriately. In many situations, an appropriate weather response consists of taking shelter within safe areas of the school building. An evacuation or reverse evacuation may also be required.
- Student reunification: reuniting students with parents or guardians in the aftermath of an emergency. This includes providing safe transportation for students, as well as implementing an organized parent/guardian and student check-in and release process.
What can supplement an EOP?
You can supplement these general strategies in your EOP with annexes, which are specialized response procedures for potential emergencies identified in your hazard analysis. There are two kinds of annexes: functional and hazard-specific. A functional annex addresses common risks from a variety of causes. A public health and medical plan, for example, is a functional annex that prepares your district to address multiple illnesses. Hazard-specific annexes, meanwhile, are specialized responses designed for unique emergencies. For instance, if your school has been susceptible to cyber-attacks in the past, create a hazard-specific annex to help you respond to and recover from these situations.
Schools should also develop a continuity of operations plan that addresses what happens after an emergency incident. Continuity plans help schools continue to deliver essential functions while experiencing a change, interruption, or breakdown in normal activity. This would include delivering instruction remotely when your school building cannot be occupied, for example.
How do you practice your plan?
Run regular drills to practice the response strategies in your EOP. One drill option is to involve your entire school by including all staff and students in evacuation and lockdown drills. Another alternative is to use “tabletop” scenarios or models to practice your drills; this is an efficient and inexpensive method to practice response strategies without taking up class time.
Either way, the most important goal of drills is to expose weaknesses or areas for improvement in your EOP and support documents. “Try to break your plan before you need it,” Moss said. “See what works and what doesn’t, so you can improve with each drill.”
Take time after every drill to consider what worked well, what went wrong, and what could be improved. As with the rest of your EOP, ensure that your drill procedures meet guidelines outlined in Chapter 37 of the Education Code, as well as local legal requirements.
Where do you get help?
The Fund has been helping schools stay safe for decades. To receive TASB’s customizable EOP template, as well as personalized help for developing an appropriate emergency response process for your organization, contact Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss.