June is National Safety Month – a month to focus on safety, accident prevention and emergency preparedness, both at home and in the workplace.
Every workplace is going to have different safety needs, based upon the type of work being done and the work conditions. One of the more challenging environments to provide safety protocols is schools.
Schools are somewhat unique in that they feature adult employees as well as children. This means that you don’t only have to prepare and train adults – you also have to make sure that children know what to do in case of emergency.
With schools beginning to wind down for the summer and employees beginning to prepare for next year, we thought it’d be a great idea to break down some of the main safety concerns that schools face, and how schools can be prepared for these scenarios.
Fires can happen to anyone, anywhere, and schools are no exception. Fires can occur as a result of mechanical issues like heating system malfunctions, accidents like chemicals mixing in a lab, or be intentionally set. Depending on the geographic location of a school, wildfires can also pose a threat.
As with any fire, one of the most important aspects of safety protocols is an ample warning system, so that everyone in the building can evacuate to safety. In schools, the most common warning systems include fire alarms with sounds and lights, often in hallways and in each classroom. Typically, these systems automatically alert emergency services to the issue, so that they know to head over as soon as an incident occurs.
Of course, once everyone is alerted, you want to be sure the fire is also contained or put out – possibly even before help arrives. In schools, this is done primarily through sprinkler systems or other fire suppression methods. In high schools, special systems may be needed in chemistry labs to protect equipment or put out different types of fires that could occur.
Another common emergency that can strike schools is severe weather. Depending on where the school is located, this could include tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards or other weather events.
In many cases, severe weather can be detected before it actually arrives, which provides time for everyone to seek shelter – even if that time is limited. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead time for a tornado warning is about 13 minutes or less before the tornado arrives. Schools should be equipped with emergency weather radios so that officials are alerted to severe weather as soon as it happens, and many communities also utilize tornado sirens and/or text messaging services to alert residents to incoming severe weather.
Because the warning window can be so short, it is critical that all teachers, students, and other employees know exactly what to do in the event of severe weather. Plans should be created for each possible weather scenario, and those plans should be practiced by everyone in the building on a regular basis.
Unlike severe weather, earthquakes often occur with no warning. There are no completely reliable earthquake prediction or warning systems in place, although emergency response services often provide information in the immediate aftermath of a quake. Because of the suddenness of an earthquake, it’s important that schools – or any institution – consider earthquake safety in the building structures themselves.
New buildings should of course be built to code, and older buildings should also undergo updates to become up to code if they aren’t already. Heavy or tall furniture should be secured in school buildings, especially if in an earthquake-prone region. Students and staff should also know that in the case of an earthquake, the best thing to do is to find cover where they are, ideally under a desk or other sturdy surface. As soon as an earthquake is over, students and staff should evacuate if it’s safe to do so, as aftershocks are likely. The safest place to be during an earthquake is outside, away from any buildings, tall trees or other objects that could fall.
Finally, another threat that schools must consider is the risk of intruders. This could be an active shooter situation, or just an unfamiliar person in the building.
Active shooter drills have become common in schools, and the most common protocol is for teachers, students, or other staff to shelter where they are, block any windows or doors, and await further instructions. However, one of the most important aspects of intruder safety is a notification system, as schools don’t want to necessarily alert the person in the building as to the fact that they know they are there.
This is where fire and life safety systems can come into play. These systems often include text messaging or other communication options along with alarms, and those methods can be effective in an intruder situation. It can also be helpful to have a code that all teachers and staff are aware of, so that it can be used over an intercom without tipping off an intruder.
Planning and Practicing for Emergencies
The most important part of a safety plan in any emergency is planning and practice. State-of-the-art warning and prevention systems will be useless if people don’t know what to do in the event of an emergency.
But, there are a few steps to follow for all the emergency scenarios listed above to help make sure your students, teachers and staff know what to do if an emergency happens.
Plan ahead. Every school needs a plan for what happens in any emergency. This includes understanding what systems are in place and how they work, how people will be alerted to a fire or other emergency, evacuation plans, and ensuring that all areas of the school buildings are covered and included. When working with fire and life safety experts, they can ensure that the proper number of fire extinguishers, sprinklers, alarm pulls and more are spread throughout each area, as well as address other safety concerns.
Provide clear communications. Even the most top-of-the-line fire and life safety system can become ineffective if people aren’t informed about what to do. Maps of the school building should be clearly posted around each area, with evacuation routes and fire extinguisher or other emergency equipment locations marked. These maps can not only help teachers or students in an emergency, but also aid emergency responders who are on-site.
Along with maps, other signage can be posted as well, promoting what to do in case of various emergencies. In high schools, special posters can be posted in science classrooms, providing information on what to do in specific chemical situations or other accidents.
Finally, all emergency plans should be distributed to teachers and staff and communicated to students. Everyone needs to be on the same page with what to do in case of a fire, tornado, intruder or other emergency.
Practice. Practicing drills for different emergency scenarios makes it more likely that students and staff will remember what to do in the case of a real emergency. Many school districts require that certain drills be done at least every three months. When in doubt, refer to your community or district guidelines, but be sure to practice all drills regularly so that the information stays fresh in everyone’s minds.
Have a plan for afterward, too. In an emergency, it’s common to think about what you’ll do during the actual event – but it’s equally important to consider what happens afterward.
Schools should make sure to have a plan for where to meet-up after evacuation has occurred, or even search-and-rescue protocols for events like earthquakes or tornadoes. There should be consideration as to how to notify parents as to what has occurred and where to pick up their children.
Consider whether you’ll need a place to house injured students, and where that location may be. It’s helpful to work with local emergency services when making these plans.
When it comes to protecting students and staff from emergencies, nothing is more important than keeping everyone as safe as possible. Using a preferred fire and life safety company can give you peace of mind that you’re going beyond compliance, offering the best protections available.