The 9/11 terrorist attacks revealed severe weaknesses in New York City’s emergency response capabilities. The Commission Report found that the 911 phone systems were bogged down with the call volume and that little information was relayed to FDNY dispatchers about the nature and extent of the emergency. There was no communication between 911 operators and NYPD. For example, NYPD had determined that rooftop rescues were not feasible, yet operators answering emergency calls from within the towers did not know this. The operators were unable to tell frantic callers if they should stay put and wait for rescue, go up to the roof, or evacuate to the lobby. Chain-of-command issues also contributed to the chaos on that September morning.
While this is an extreme example of crisis communication failure, it demonstrates the importance of integrating communication networks and creating back-up systems. Drills, planning, and protocols are ineffective when communications break down. Most school districts adopted their IT systems—SIS, administration software, grading, and attendance programs—incrementally as technology advanced and funds became available. These disparate legacy systems tend to have communication gaps, with non-intuitive interfaces and outdated technology.
In response to the 911 Commission report, the federal government formed the National Incident Management System to coordinate emergency preparedness and response. When creating their crisis communication plan checklist, school districts can take a similar approach by developing communication procedures and upgrading IT systems to pull together fragmented technology and the personnel organization chart.
Crisis Communication Plan Goals
The overarching goal of any district’s emergency operations plan (EOP) is to protect the health and lives of the school community in an emergency. Designing systems to expedite clear internal and external communications supports this goal. The US Department of Education REMS Technical Assistance Center suggests that school leaders should consider the following when developing crisis communication plans:
- How school systems may be integrated with first-responder communications
- The training needed to ensure that school staff knows how to operate communications equipment
- How to address technology, language, and accessibility barriers
- Effective ways to communicate with the entire community
- How to handle media relations
The last two items are particularly important. Open, transparent communications with parents, the media, and the public will foster trust, which is necessary to ensure cooperation and keep rumors and misinformation at bay. If the public believes that school leaders are hiding information, EOPs may unravel when tested. As planners check off items on the crisis communication plan checklist, they should always keep in mind that parents and the community are stakeholders and need timely information.
Crisis Communication Plan Checklist
Identify key personnel in the district and create a chain of command
Designate a communications leader to coordinate preparedness, response, and recovery communications. Internal and external coordinators should answer directly to the leader, with an external coordinator serving as a liaison to first responders, government agencies, parents, and the community. Supplement this team with a media spokesperson. This position may include social media notifications. Members of the team must be clear on their roles and responsibilities to ensure that there is no gap in the communications system.
Identify and plan for the most likely scenarios
Communication needs vary depending on the threat. Fires, toxic spills, illnesses, accidents, and intruders require immediate yet different responses. Calling a snow day requires broadcasting information; an intruder in one of the district buildings requires discrete internal communications and a direct line to law enforcement. Communication plans should consider each scenario and determine how to best reach all relevant parties.
Pre-write communication messages for most likely emergencies
Unclear messaging will compound the anxiety and confusion that comes with unexpected crises. Pre-drafted messages, written to convey protocols and procedures without causing panic, will save the communication coordinator’s time and eliminate the possibility that a quickly written notice could mislead recipients.
Identify communication methods best for each crisis type
Advances in mobile technology have expanded communication options. Half the homes in the country have abandoned landlines in favor of cell phones; social media, streaming media, and cable networks have crowded the space once held exclusively by broadcast television and radio stations. Website updates, email, and social media posts are useful in the preparation and mitigation stage of the emergency response cycle, yet they are not suitable for delivering urgent notices. When a threat is imminent or in progress, automated phone calls, SMS messaging, and press releases to local news media will quickly relay important information. Planners must determine the most efficient and effective methods to issue statements and coordinate emergency responses for each type of crisis.
Identify required equipment
The crisis communication plan team, along with IT personnel, should inventory current communication equipment, including two-way radios, phone systems, hard-wired and Wi-Fi-enabled computers, tablets, and cell phones. Upgrades may be necessary to implement new procedures. Also, the team must consider back-up power sources and the possibility of server failure. A cloud-based solution for data storage may be required.
Create a central hub for coordinating communications
Although districts may have reduced central office staff to allocate more resources to the schools, district offices still must function as the organizing base for all its buildings, and the superintendent is ultimately responsible for all external communications. This final item on your crisis communication plan checklist is the most important, particularly for large districts with multiple buildings spread across a city or county. By automating and integrating school IT systems—SIS, attendance, visitor management, behavior management, etc.—school leaders may oversee the emergency response from a remotely accessed administration hub.
An updated crisis communication plan requires updated technology. Modern, integrated IT systems with built-in redundancies are the foundation of an effective communications system. While budgets for most districts are tight, new technology can be phased in to work with legacy systems. Contact a ScholarChip representative to learn more.
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!