Enabling Students To Learn Safely

Enabling Students To Learn Safely

Facilitating robust, reliable communications between school staff and first responders

The primary concern of every K-12 school is to enable students to learn, grow and thrive in a safe and secure environment. In trying to accomplish that goal, schools are facing a big obstacle in facilitating robust, reliable and immediate communications between school staff and first responders during an emergency event. Schools continue to search for integrated and universal solutions to meet their communications challenges.

Most K-12 schools, however, will admit that their actual communication capabilities are composed of disparate systems and equipment, which are not interconnected or integrated. As a result, their communications capabilities are lacking and in some cases completely inadequate, which can put their students and teachers in harm’s way and reduce the efficiency of their emergency response.

Leveraging Emergency Communication

K-12 schools regularly face emergencies that require instant and coordinated responses from multiple teams to manage an emergency event. It is important to recognize that during an emergency, every administrator, teacher and staff member in a school becomes a first responder. Together, they can provide a coordinated response using various communication tools like smartphones, two-way radios, laptop computers and iPad tablets. The key to making their emergency response more effective and immediate is ensuring that they can communicate instantly, regardless of the device they are using, the network they can connect to or their physical location.

It is also critical that information from alarm systems, video surveillance systems and mass notification systems becomes available to the K-12 school staff and all responding fire fighters, law enforcement and emergency medical staff.

In addition, school administrators must fulfill their responsibility of notifying the parents of students – whom they are entrusted to keep safe – about an emergency event. There can be major political and legal consequences if a K-12 school lacks the ability to communicate effectively with parents during emergency events such as severe weather, chemical spill, utility outage, school security lockdown and or any other type of disruptive event.

Generally, schools will rely on a campus-wide mass notification system to provide a reliable method to notify people on campus and parents of an emergency event and explain what is happening, what to do, where to go and when it’s safe to resume normal activities.

Establishing Two-Way Communication

The truth is that an effective emergency communication system is not leveraging many, if not all, of the monitoring, communications and control systems in your school building or on your campus.

A K-12 school should equip its critical emergency management team with two-way radios. Two-way radios are specifically purpose- built for two-way communications on a private radio network. This will provide the most reliable means of communicating during an emergency event. Many schools try to use smartphones for emergency communications but this approach is challenging and can be ineffective.

The reason is that during an emergency event, the cellular services can become overtaxed and swamped with calling, which can make their services unreliable. When dealing with a school emergency, the last thing the superintendent, principal, administrators or teachers should be thinking about is the functionality, performance and reliability of their emergency communication system.

The reality is that in an emergency, the most reliable form of communications is a two-way radio system. In addition, current two-way radio system technology allows the radio system to interface and communicate with virtually any other type of communications device such as smartphones, GPS units, laptop computers and iPad tablets. They can also interface and communicate with telephone landlines and on any public or private mobile data network, including Wi-Fi. When local fire, police and emergency first responders arrive on a school campus, they usually immediately establish an incident command center with communications being a key component.

The fire, police and emergency responders will bring their own two-way radio system and handheld radios, which will operate on different frequencies than the school radios. However, these mobile command centers are normally equipped with interface bridging equipment, which allow them to patch the school radios into their system so they can talk with school’s emergency management team.

As a best practice, a school should also leverage the resources that it already has in place to communicate with employees on their own personal devices. This allows the principal or administrator who is attending a convention or at a meeting away from the school to use their smartphones to communicate seamlessly with radio users back at the school.

Developing A School Safety Plan

The school safety plan is the single most important part of the emergency management process. You should begin by identifying the threats to your campus; create worstcase scenarios; evaluate your systems; and identify the hardware and software issues you need to address.

Next, the school safety plan should identify your emergency management response team and assign responsibilities. They need to determine what emergency communication systems and protocols should be used; what messages should be sent in specific situations; where you will instruct people to go; by what routes; and to which safe areas. It should detail evacuation plans and provide signage to guide your school occupants to safety.

School safety plans should address planning and preparation, mitigation of vulnerabilities, response to events that happen and recovery after an event has happened. They must be an ongoing process, regularly reviewed and revised with all partners, from public safety agencies to communication vendors.

The school safety plan further explains how your emergency management team will be trained and prescribes methods for implementing training activities with different simulated emergency scenarios. It also focuses on the cooperation and synergy required from local government, fire fighters, law enforcement, emergency medical and disaster recovery staff and provides a methodology for accomplishing a total response to any type of crisis.

Over time, things change and so must your emergency communications process. A K-12 school campus is a growing, evolving community, from a structural, operational and human standpoint.

This is why it is necessary to conduct regular tests, evaluations, exercises and drills of not only your emergency management process, but also your emergency communications systems, procedures and response actions. People do what they practice, so a routine schedule will help to prepare your people.

This article originally appeared in the March April 2020 issue of Campus Security Today.


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