Tips for Improving Your School Safety Plan

school safetySchools are required to have school safety plans to keep their students and staff safe. Districts adhere to those regulations by formulating plans on evacuating people in the event of a fire and scenarios warranting lockout or lock-down scenarios. As a Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician, a member of the military for over 13 years, and a school teacher for over 15 years with a postgraduate certificate in administration, I feel that a current school safety plan can be enhanced by knowing what firefighters use to plan for emergency situations.

When a Fire Department has to respond to an incident there are a number of things that officers, firefighters, and EMS members need to keep in mind when it comes to making decisions. An emergency scene is very dynamic with many variables and a number of things that can go wrong. First responders use “Size Up” to help them make informed decisions.

Size-up is the process of gathering information that will assist firefighters and fire officers in making efficient, effective, and safe decisions on the fire-ground. The more information responders have on a structure's construction type, occupancy, the life hazard, the water supply, the location of the structure, possible hazardous materials, and other contributing factors, the more informed they will be to make quick decisions in scenarios where lives are on the line.

In Fireground Strategies by Anthony L. Avillo, he breaks the information-gathering process into a useful mnemonic device, “COAL WAS WEALTH.”

The size-up consists of:

Construction
Occupancy
Apparatus and Manpower
Life Hazard

Water Supply
Auxiliary Appliances
Street Conditions

Weather
Exposures
Area and Height
Location and Extent
Time
Hazardous Materials

school safetyWhen responders use this acronym prior to and during an emergency incident, it gives responders answers to questions about a building. The more information responders have about a particular building prior to and during an incident, the better they will be prepared to handle the potential obstacles that come with a fire, a collapse, or disaster. The 13-point size-up is geared toward fighting fires; however, no matter what the incident the “COAL WAS WEALTH” information gathering process is used for all incidents.

When an emergency happens in your building, responders are going to ask building leaders questions about the building and will want to know certain information. What they will want to know will depend on the situation. The questions that responders will ask will be based off of the 13-point sizeup that they have been trained to use when responding to an incident.

The building leader does not want to rely on their memory to answer questions when time is of the essence. A building’s head custodian will provide a wealth of information to you and should not only be readily available during an emergency but should also be included in augmenting your emergency plans. Prior to the incident, it is best for building leaders to have that information ready when responders show up. The building leader(s) and stakeholders in the school district can collect that information and have it available when it is needed.

The 13-Point Size-Up Breakdown

Below is a break-down of the 13-point size up. Each step describes what information responders want and how you can gather and provide that information. It would be best to have a collection of that data in a binder that will be with the building leader during an incident. In the binder be sure you place a date on when you completed the size up. This will inform school safety committee members and other stakeholders as to when it was completed and whether or not it needs to be updated.

Construction
Knowledge of a building’s features enables the incident commander to decide on what strategy to use.

What responders want to know:
What the building is made of, if they are going to have problems entering, any recent renovations or extensions that may have been done.

What information can you provide for them:
Blueprints or maps of the building, locations of access to the roof. Any information about recent construction or alterations that have been made to the building.

Occupancy
A building’s occupancy can provide responders with clues as to what strategy the Incident Commander will have to take.

What responders want to know:
The most important thing responders want to know about an occupancy is what and who are inside the building. A building’s occupancy can give responders an idea of potential hazards and the expected life hazard. The building's use and its occupants give clues to other hazards that may impact what decisions responders make and what tools they need to complete a task.

What information can you provide for them:
Information that you could have readily available that may be useful is the approximate number of people in the building. Having exact numbers may not be important to responders however; exact numbers could be important to school leaders for planning purposes or contingency plans.

As you gather information on your building and its occupants it might be helpful to answer the following questions when thinking about staff and students:

Staff
How many adults do you have in the building?
How many teachers?
How many administrators?
How many custodians?
How many Teacher Assistants?
Other support staff?

Having accurate numbers of the people in your building will help you in a number of situations that you can or can not anticipate. For planning purposes knowing the number of Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) staff you have can be important. In an emergency PPS (depending on their responsibilities) primary duties are not instruction. Therefore you will have an adult that is not committed to supervising a classroom of students. An administrator can find a situation where that freed up staff member can be useful. Know what your staff members are assigned to do in the event of an emergency. Do your best to put your people in a role where they can be helpful.

Students
How many students do you have in the building?
Is there anything unique about your population?
Do your have students with special needs?
Do you have students that have medical needs that need constant monitoring such as Diabetes?
Are there any students who are in a wheelchair?
Do you have students in the building that are blind or deaf?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions then your next questions should be:
What am I doing to meet their needs? How are we going to handle students who need assistance if there is an emergency?

Building History
Do your best to become as knowledgeable about the building as you can. Know when it was built. If you have access to plans get a copy of them. If alterations, renovations, or additions have been made, when did the construction take place? Do you have blueprints or plans?

Apparatus and Manpower
An Incident commander wants to know what they have available to them during an emergency incident so that they can properly manage their resources.

What responders want to know:
How many personnel are they going to need at the incident? What additional resources are they going to need? What kind of specialized equipment are they going to need? Where and who will they get the resources from?

What information can you provide them:
Pictures of the exterior of the school. A picture of the doors will tell responders what forcible entry tools they will need to gain entry into the building. Additional pictures of what the doors look like would be helpful to help determine what forcible entry tool would be needed. Information provided to responders prior to the incident will allow them to determine how much personnel they will need at an emergency incident and if they need additional resources from a neighboring agency. That information will enable the responders directly responsible for the school in question so that they can incorporate outside agencies into their response plan.

Life Hazard
The life hazard is not often determined until responders are at the incident. Prior to the incident, Fire Departments gather this information to make it easier to determine how significant the life hazard will be.

What responders want to know:
The location and the extent of the incident in order to decide how to utilize personnel and resources.

What can you provide them:
The locations in the building that will see a large number of students. For instance, the location of the Cafeteria, how many students in the cafeteria, the time that you begin serving lunch and when it ends. Location of assemblies or pep rallies.

Water Supply
In the event of a fire if the fire department does not have access to water or has difficulty ascertaining a water source this will interfere with getting water on fire quickly.

What responders want to know:
The location of water sources such as fire hydrants

What can you provide them:
The locations of fire hydrants in the surrounding area. If the hydrants in the area are sufficient. Pictures of the locations of the fire hydrants. Aerial view map from google map pointing out locations of hydrants.

Auxiliary Appliances

What responders want to know:
Whether or not a building has a sprinkler system or standpipe system. They will also need to know what type of system it is, the location of the system, where the standpipe system is located, and how to shut it down.

What can you provide them:
Location of the systems on a map and pictures of the locations.

Street Conditions

What responders want to know:
Best possible routes to get to the location. Areas under construction en route to the location of the incident. Where to position their apparatus when they arrive at the incident. The location of power lines that may interfere with using an aerial ladder vehicle from laddering the roof from the parking lot or the sidewalk.

What can you provide them:
From the roof you can take pictures of the parking lot and adjoining streets. In addition you could provide pictures of what the exterior of the building looks like at the beginning of the day when buses are in the parking lot and at dismissal. These pictures when provided to the responders will help them to anticipate where to put their resources, possible traffic problems, where to place apparatus.

Weather
It is almost impossible to plan for weather. Weather is a part of size-up during the day and during the incident. Firefighters will be concerned with wind because it will aid in spreading a fire. Another weather related factor is the presence of snow and ice. A heavy load of snow on a roof that may be weak can be a contributing factor to a potential collapse.

Exposures
Exposures are buildings located next to or behind the building. The concern that firefighters have is the fire spreading from one building to the next.

What information do responders want:
The construction type, occupancy, presence of hazardous materials, and the presence of auxiliary appliances for adjoining structures to the school.

What information can you provide for them:
Pictures from your building showing responders the adjoining building in relation to your building. Pictures should show the proximity of the building as it relates to your building.

Area & Height

What information do responders want:
Knowing the depth and area of the building, along with potential setbacks, differences in elevations on different sides of the building, locations of stairways in relation to the entrance is helpful. Information on the area and height will dictate what strategy to use, what resources responders will need and potential problems. They may also want to know potential dead spots in radio communication to the Incident Commander.

What information can you provide for them:
Exterior pictures of the building on all sides of the building. On the pictures point out the classroom numbers and the location of stair wells. If it is a classroom where special needs students are educated, include that as well. You may also want to include pictures and locations of emergency shutoff valves, location of HVAC unit, pictures of the roof, pictures from the roof of the surrounding area, and any additional information that you feel would be useful,

Location & Extent

What information do responders want:
This part cannot be determined until responders arrive. Location and extent determine the life hazard which will determine what action they need to take. If a trash can was on fire on the exterior of the building responders apply water to the fire and everyone goes home. If that same trash can was in the woodshop class of a school a host of challenges and decisions need to be made.

What information can you provide for them:
Classrooms and locations of potential hazardous materials. Location of classrooms where students operate machinery.

Time
The time of day the incident takes place will be important to responders. If a school is on fire at 4:00 AM that changes the decisions they will make as opposed to the time being 11:00 AM on a Monday.

What information can you provide for them:
-your hours of operation.
-when after school activities begin and end
-late bus pickups
-weekend activity hours

Hazardous Materials

What responders want to know:
Knowledge of what chemical or compound is within an occupancy will help responders determine what actions they need to take if materials are involved.

What information can you provide them:
If you have a school that has a science lab, begin with making a list of all the chemicals that you have. Many of these chemicals alone are probably harmless, but if the conditions in a building change, such as a fire, knowing what chemicals are present and where they are located will help responders make decisions . Once you have a list of these chemicals, locate Material Safety Data Sheets on each chemical. You can find most chemicals on sciencelab.com. You can also use a NIOSH (National institute for Occupational Safety and Health) guide along with an ERG (Emergency Response Guide).

Another area that you may want to pay attention to is where custodians keep chemicals they use for cleaning. Again, make a list of those chemicals and find MSDS (Material Safety Data) sheets for those chemicals.

Building Maps
A building map can provide a wealth of information to personnel who are about to go inside a structure to handle an emergency situation. In the event of an emergency, the building leader will be outside of the structure with the Incident Commander answering questions about what is inside their building and the location of key areas.

A map showing the location of corridors and classrooms will be useful however; a school map usually contains classroom numbers, the location of the cafeteria, and the gymnasium. If you go one step further by taking that map and then labeling the classrooms that are different from your standard classroom with desks and books that will provide responders with information on potential hazards or obstacles.

On the map label:
Family and Consumer Science classrooms that have kitchens and appliances
Location of classrooms where Special Needs students are located
Technology or Woodshop classrooms that contain power towels and left over wood and other carpentry or electrical materials.
Location of access points to the roof
Where the fire extinguishers are located
Location of fire doors in the hall that close automatically when the school alarm is activated
Location of the kitchen

It is important that you take a walk around the building to confirm that what is on the map is actually is on the interior of the building. You may find that classrooms are not properly labeled on the map. This would be a good time to make those corrections. You may have a building map that has not been updated in 10 years or a map where a minor mistake was made and could not be fixed because it was too expensive.

Use of Pictures
When a Fire Department Officer arrives on scene they will try to orient themselves by getting a quick look of the exterior of the building by looking at all four sides so that they may begin to size-up the scenario. From there the Fire Officer will establish a command post where they can receive communication and monitor progress (usually towards the front of the structure).

As the building leader, chances are the Incident Commander is going to want you at or near the Command Post if they need additional information and you are going to want to provide accurate information. Having pictures of the all four sides of the building will provide a clear picture at the command post of what the area looks like and what additional resources may be needed in that area to accomplish a task.

In those pictures be sure to:
Provide the classroom numbers of the window(s) in the picture
Label where emergency shut off valves and HVAC units are located
Label locations of staircases
Offices
Cafeteria
Conference Rooms

Why this is important:

school safetyGathering all of this information on your building can be very time consuming, however; when there is an incident at your school responders are going to want the information already discussed.

This information is easy to obtain and you are going to want that information at your fingertips if and when you become overwhelmed. That information can be used to locate students, rescue workers, determine what tool is needed to complete a task, or to adjust a strategy because crews are in close proximity to something that is potentially dangerous or may impede rescue operations.

Once you have all this information it is important for you to have it all together and accessible. Having it on a computer or another device is not a bad idea since it can be accessible and portable. You should have a plan for accessing that information if the technology does not work. A simple binder with pages in clear plastic sheets can work just as well.

Responders may or may not have all of this information readily available. This would be a good point to share that information with them and to either start a dialog with them or improve that communication. It could also be a good opportunity to invite them to your school to conduct a training. Fire Departments and Police Departments welcome opportunities to conduct training in different areas and scenarios. If you allow them to use your facility it gives them an opportunity to create a real world scenario that will have them better prepared, it will allow them to become more familiar with your building, and it will give you an opportunity to learn what they do, how they do it, and what you can do to aid in that effort so that you can be part of keeping students, staff, and your building safer.

When an administrator walks through their building they look at the cleanliness of the building, if students are where they are supposed to be, bulletin boards with student work, etc. A firefighter, police officer, and EMS member walk through a building and look at doors, potential obstacles, easy access to exits, what tools may be used to breach doors, etc. For the most part we are all aware of our surroundings. We all take notice of things in a new environment based on our experiences and attitudes. When it comes to emergency planning and school safety it is best to try and look at your building and your plans through the eyes of a first-responder.

 

About the Author
John Heeg earned his undergraduate degree in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in Secondary Education in 2000 from Dowling College, Oakdale, NY. He also holds permanent certification in Social Studies from grades 7-12. He then went on to receive his Masters Degree in 2006 from Touro College in Special Education and a Post-Graduate certificate in School Administration from Stony Brook University in 2009. Following his deployment to Iraq as a Hospital Corpsman he pursued a certificate in Fire Protection at Suffolk Community College and finished in 2013. John has been in the fire service since 1994 serving as a Firefighter, Emergency Medical Technician, and as a Rescue Technician for the Suffolk County Urban Search and Rescue Team.