In an emergency, unclear or failed communications can create confusion and panic, aggravating the situation and putting students and staff at greater risk. A carefully written crisis communication plan cannot be effective if school personnel don’t understand their roles, the systems involved, or how to implement emergency procedures. There is no advantage to investing in state-of-the-art technology if it confuses users or is inappropriately applied. School security experts stress that strong communication systems are the foundation of an effective EOP. Whether it is regarding internal communications during planning and preparation or external communications to first responders, parents, and the media, a comprehensive approach to crisis communication management must bring people and technology together so stakeholders can get information as clearly and quickly as possible.
Underlying Principles of Crisis Communication Management
The US Department of Education, in cooperation with FEMA, Homeland Security, and other federal agencies, created a comprehensive guide for developing school EOPs. The document puts forth a series of planning principles to ensure seamless emergency operations.
Planning should be a collaborative process
To be successful, a planning team must have the support of the school’s leadership, but planning functions should not be limited to administrators. All stakeholders—administrators, staff, parents, first responders, and the public—have unique perspectives, and everyone should be involved in the planning process.
Plans must be customized for each building
Communications may flow to and from central offices, but the unique situation of each building, the physical facilities, and the needs of the staff and students within require site-specific procedures. The input of building administrators, school personnel, and parents will inform building-level communication policies.
Plans must consider multiple hazards
Different situations call for different types of communication. Planners must list potential threats and determine communication needs for each one. When an approaching winter storm forces an early dismissal, schools must widely broadcast this information and reach out to parents. Fires and bomb threats require communications that will activate evacuations and once the emergency has passed, send details to the community about the threat and the district’s response. Accidents, health emergencies, and threats from an intruder are situations that demand that districts coordinate their plans with first responders and local health officials.
Consider all settings and times
Responsibility for personnel and student safety extends beyond school grounds and school hours. Districts must put in place communication plans for emergencies that happen during after-school hours, at school-sponsored sporting events, and during field trips and other events that find students away from district grounds.
Consider modes of communications
Advances in mobile technology have dramatically changed the way that people get their information and communicate. Public address systems and two-way radios remain useful for crisis communication management. Approximately half the homes in the US are still wired with landlines, but many people now depend on cell phones with SMS capabilities to connect with others. For many, social media has become the first place to find the latest news and information. This gives schools more communication options, so districts must update their EOPs to reflect these changes.
Address communication needs for each phase of the emergency management cycle
Effective crisis communication management recognizes that how districts relay information will vary depending on the urgency of the situation. Emergency management may be viewed as a cycle of prevention, preparation, response, and recovery. Each phase requires appropriate communication protocols.
- Prevention: The NEA advocates focusing on creating a positive school climate and conducting needs assessments, which are activities that require open communications with all stakeholders. These may include meetings, webinars, and private online forums, in addition to traditional meetings, emails, and memos.
- Preparation: In this phase, planners are developing an EOP, assigning roles, and providing training. Team leaders need effective ways to contact relevant stakeholders and collect feedback. Preparation includes creating automated systems for responding to an emergency.
- Response: This is the time of crisis. Communications must reach the appropriate members of the school community, first responders, law enforcement, and local officials quickly, with concise messages that leave no room for misinterpretation.
- Recovery: A crisis can leave emotional distress in its wake. A communication strategy must include methods for reaching out to the community to access residual damages. A public statement on the event and the district’s response may be necessary.
Integrate technology to facilitate communications
For every event that threatens the health and safety of the school community, from an infestation of head lice in the kindergarten to an approaching funnel cloud, the district’s communications coordinator needs specific information: who is in danger? Who needs to know about the situation?
Legacy IT systems silo data, which leaves information gaps that can impede crisis communications. In disparate systems, attendance data and visitor sign-in logs are not accessible from the same databases that hold contact information. Events that physically damage school infrastructure may affect on-site servers, bringing down entire communication networks.
Updating the district’s technology with automated attendance and visitor management systems will aggregate essential information, where it may be accessed from a central data hub. Cloud-based storage systems allow for the off-site retrieval of this vital data.
The Goal: A Coordinated Plan
Effective crisis communication management brings together school personnel, parents, students, and the local community. It identifies the technology necessary to keep everyone informed as emergency protocols and procedures are developed and implemented. Newer technologies with integrated SIS, administration programs, attendance, and other school software make this coordination possible. Contact a ScholarChip representative to learn more about technology that can support crisis communications and streamline operations throughout the district.
Here at ScholarChip, we’re dedicated to helping school leaders maximize the safety and well-being of students and the entire school community.
Want to develop an effective school crisis communication plan but not sure where to start? Feel free to chat with one of our school crisis communication specialists today!