School Emergency Plans: Communication Considerations
Of interest to:
- Chairs of Governors
- Academy Trustees
- School Business Managers
- Nursery Owners/Managers
- Emergency Planners
A helpful summary of how to ensure your communications are ready for a crisis
While real emergencies are (thankfully) rare, schools are required to have arrangements in place for situations that impact the whole school community: whether it be storms, gas leaks, or criminal activity. When a crisis hits, schools need to be ready to inform, reassure and react to complex situations.
Detailed guidance for schools planning for emergencies and severe weather, is available from the Government*
Some may find the official guidance heavy going, particularly the Cabinet Offices supporting documentation. Taken at face value there are also some potential gotchas and other scenarios that need to be understood.
Given the lack of predictability in climate, global security and the legal complexities of health and safety legislation, planning for emergencies can be a challenge when resources are limited – particularly for smaller schools and nurseries.
One underlying theme is the need to maintain effective communications throughout the emergency. The government’s guidance states a phone number should be nominated and shared with relevenat stakeholders and parents. This seems to be just a tick box item but it needs careful consideration in your planning process – it may be vital to your response.
In an emergency you may experience a significant increase in the number of calls you receive. This would place a burden on your telephony infrastructure (the number of lines you have serving your school) and call answering resources (the number of people you can allocate to answering calls).
An engaged phone will cause distress to parents, will prevent the emergency services coordinating a response and will mean the media are not correctly briefed – beware of quotes from unofficial sources.
Alternative Communication Plans
Also what type of emergency are you planning for? Events on the ground may affect the resources you have access to. For instance, a flood will not only affect your ability to travel, it may cause a loss of power and your local telephone exchange may fail. Your fall back position, therefore, may be to use a mobile phone as an alternative.
However, if you live in a metropolitan area a ‘7/7-type’ event may mean the mobile network is not available. Guidance on this is currently under review.
We are now in an age when we are trying to plan for the unexpected and unimaginable, and it is a significant challenge to plan for the next event, based on past events.
It’s not as easy as sharing the school telephone number, unfortunately.
So how can you remedy this and put measures in place to help support a survivable telephony service which will support your emergency response.
Consider the following:
- Decide who will be the ‘voice’ of the school for different events: Head, Chair of Governors, etc.
- Know who to call for advice. Do you have a contact number ready for the LA, Health Trust or Police for emergency advice?
- Use several numbers for specific groups to contact – parents, the emergency services and the media. This spreads the load and will help you to allocate your resources accordingly.
- Make your numbers for the emergency services and media ex directory, to prevent misuse.
- Use out of area numbers (OoA) to ensure your telephony survives a loss of local infrastructure. You may want to speak to another school that could provide thess for you.
- Alternatively, you could use a non-geographic number (NGN)– 03 numbers are now typically used by government.
- Decide where your OoA or NGN numbers need to deliver to (and who will answer). If you are using the goodwill of a friendly school who are provide numbers for you, they will need to call forward to one of your numbers. If you are using an NGN number, this will need to “deliver to” one of your numbers (fixed or mobile). The provider should set this up for you and may provide a portal to help you control this in the future.
- If your emergency creates a call spike, or if you local telephone service (fixed or mobile) isn’t available, look at using a call answering service/emergency switchboard provider. You will need to define a process to brief the call centre agents on the message they need to give out. Once again your OoA/NGN number will have to be configured to deliver to the required location.
- Use a notification service to send proactive alerts and messages. This should prevent many of the calls you would normally receive reaching your location – thus reducing the burden on your telephone system and resources. A cloud based service would be recommended, as something locally deployed will be susceptible to local infrastructure failure; power, telephony, etc.
- Don’t depend on one channel! One final point to understand is the threat to your data network. Posting information onto your website may be vital to your emergency response but once again the emergency may impact local infrastructure. In addition, the threat of ‘Cyber attack’ has now become pervasive to our nation’s security and this includes our education system.
This is a thought provoking challenge and one recommendation would be to avoid single points of attack. If costs permit and if resources allow, build a plan that covers processes, people and resources.
Try to buddy up with out of area schools and colleges (something our emergency services do for their 999 call handling) Consider duplicating resource from multiple vendors, use systems with differing technology, avoid locally deployed services and if this is going to cause sleepless nights, employ a emergency planning consultant who can advise on the best approach.
Finally, it is worth remembering that a true crisis is unlikely. If you need to explain the School nativity has been cancelled due to Joseph having stage fright and the Three Kings going down with Chickenpox, your normal communication should work fine.
However, it is a legal requirement to be ready for something more serious, and while we all hope for the best, it is essential to be ready for the worst.