New Bill Aids School Pre-Planning for Emergency Situations
by Stephen Owen, Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On April 1, 2022, Governor Youngkin signed into law House Bill 741, which amended Code of Virginia Section 22.1-279.8. As previously enacted, this section requires public K-12 schools to conduct a yearly safety audit including a physical facility review grounded in crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), a review of certain types of incidents specified in the Code, and recommendations for improving school safety. The section also requires schools to have crisis and emergency response plans.
The processes specified in the Code are clearly intended to be collaborative, including participation from local school district administration, a school safety audit committee, and representatives from the emergency management and first response communities. However, the Code language specifies that for the safety audit, itself, each district shall submit a copy of the audit “to the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety and shall make [it] available upon request to the chief law-enforcement officer of the locality.”
All of the above are valuable – and critically important – measures that can help ensure the safety of school facilities and the students and staff who use them. The new measure added to the Code language relates to building floor plans, which are now required as components of the safety audit:
“As part of each such audit, the school board shall create a detailed and accurate floor plan for each public school building in the local school division or shall certify that the existing floor plan for each such school is sufficiently detailed and accurate.”
This offers multiple benefits for emergency planning and provides emergency managers and planners with the opportunity to prompt discussions that can lead to meaningful pre-planning. The concept of pre-planning, which has a long tradition in the fire service, is the practice of inspecting facilities and determining potential access points, hazards, safety equipment (in a fire context, standpipe connections, sprinkler systems, and the like), building egress routes, staging areas for emergency vehicles, and more. Law enforcement can also utilize this practice for building safety, and the inclusion of floor plans in safety assessments can help.
Lack of facility familiarity or readily available information about a facility has been identified as a complicating factor in reports reviewing the response efforts to some active assailant events including those at Columbine High School, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and the Washington Navy Yard. It can also provide a challenge for routine medical calls (I recall encountering an EMS crew in a large building where I was working and having to direct them to the other end of the building, near a different entrance door, to locate the room where their services were needed), evacuation planning, fire response, and more.
Those who work in public safety (e.g., law enforcement, the fire service, rescue providers, emergency managers, or others) should jointly collaborate with their local jurisdiction’s chief law enforcement officer to obtain copies of the audit and to review the floor plans of each school facility in their jurisdiction. These can be examined and annotated for numerous aspects that can be incorporated into existing response plans. These may include, but certainly are not limited to:
- Identification of all potential points of ingress and egress (including lesser-known mechanical and building support areas).
- Locations and types of hazardous materials within the building (e.g., laboratories, cleaning supplies, chlorine for pools, etc.).
- Locations of potential exterior evacuation assembly or interior sheltering areas, including storm-safe locations.
- Colloquial naming of building spaces (e.g., in my high school, the long and dark basement hallway where all sophomores had their lockers was called “the dungeon;” everyone knew it and I’m not sure how else we would have described it).
- Emergency vehicle access routes, and particularly driveways that allow access to various building ingress or egress points (e.g., to access the door closest to a fire or medical emergency, which may not always be the front entrance).
- Including classroom assignments or a copy of the master schedule, so it’s clear which room is generally assigned to a particular teacher (this can come into play when room numbers are not known or when it is necessary to locate a specific class).
- Notations of door, stairwell, and elevator numbers that match those posted on the exterior and interior of the building.
- Assembly areas, their resources, and their capacities (this may be of use not just for school emergencies, but any time a space may be needed for community sheltering).
- Means of accessing the facility (e.g., “knox box” locations, keyholder information, master keying system to indicate which keys open which doors, etc.).
The new Code provision also specifies that floor plans may be excluded from the public release of school safety audit information; this is a good practice and one that school districts should be encouraged to exercise, to avoid sensitive material being available in the public domain.
However, the plans should be easily accessible by first responders, including but not limited to law enforcement, public safety telecommunicators, fire and rescue services, the school district itself, and the local emergency management office. Whether held in a secure online portal, a mobile data terminal systems, computer aided dispatch systems, or (more old-school, but still valuable) binders that can easily and quickly be retrieved, ease of access to building information can help guide a response. This should also be coupled (to the extent possible) with training on how to access, read, and utilize plans; conducting building-specific emergency exercises incorporating the plans, consistent with the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program; and building walkthroughs with members of the first response community.
As with everything in emergency management, it’s all about collaboration. The inclusion of floor plans in school safety audits provides a valuable resource that should not languish in a binder on a shelf, but instead offers the opportunity for productive inter-agency conversations and the development of environmental and situational awareness that enhances school safety.