Build Your Own Community-Wide Safety Plan: A Step-By-Step Guide

Navigate Prepared

It was early morning, Thursday, July 2, 2015. The Sheriff-issued cell phone on my nightstand, the cell phone I never want to hear ring in the early morning, goes off. The voice on the other end of the line is speaking rapidly, out of breath. The details come out choppy.

A train derailment. Tanker car on fire. First responders on scene overtaken by some kind of toxic fumes, not sure what. Residential area, a bedroom community. Calling because the county’s emergency operations plan has been activated. Over 5,000 being evacuated, staging shelter needed immediately, only place that can hold that many people is the large high school. And then two questions.

Do I have the contacts for the school district to get the building opened? It’s the middle of the night during the summer break on a holiday weekend. Naturally, several key people are out of town on vacation.

Do I have the school district’s emergency operations plan? A plan existed, but those first few hours still ended up being chaotic. 

We were supposed to execute a plan but were totally overwhelmed.

Thankfully, we came out on the other side of this ordeal. But when I reflected on the disorganization in those first crucial hours, I was not happy. At the debrief the next week, we took an honest look at ourselves and knew we could have done better. 

Lack of information can turn an event into a tragedy. Give your team the safety information they need to be prepared.

I couldn’t help running through the what-ifs that could have turned this emergency into a disaster. What if I hadn’t answered my phone? What if it was me on vacation? Who would have been the next call? Does anyone have all the phone numbers? How many people have all the details about that campus?

As I cycled through these questions, I realized it all came down to limited access to vital information.

Building a Community-Wide Plan from the Foundation to the Roof

This major incident made it clear we had to improve our communications and information sharing. We also learned that an emergency didn’t have to take place during a school day for it to involve the school system. 

At the time of our debrief, Blount County Schools had already purchased a school safety platform, NaviGate Prepared. That’s when we realized that if we brought in our other stakeholders, we could use NaviGate Prepared and its immediate access to vital information to build a true community-wide plan.

The story of Blount County’s transformation is not one of simply buying some software and what that technology enabled us to do. That’s definitely part of the story. But more than the software, we needed people to buy into the idea of sharing resources so we could rally together as a team. 

Through the rest of this story, I’ll take you through our process of building this community-wide safety plan, which you can then adapt as a step-by-step guide for your own community. 

I think of building a response plan as being similar to building a structure: You eventually bring all the parts together, but you have to start from the foundation. Early on, we realized that foundation is our school system. Next, we move on to what I call the pillars: EMS, fire, and law enforcement. Then, on top of everything, you have your roof: 911 communications, who now use NaviGate Prepared to see every situation in a school with the click of a button.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll start with the foundation. 

Step 1: Building a Foundation in the School System

Since each school has its own safety plan, it’s the logical place to start your community-wide initiative. In our case, some of the Blount County schools had already bought the NaviGate Prepared platform. Those school administrators led the way.

We started with a vulnerability assessment for each school. Boy, was that an eye-opener. Some of our campuses did well in their vulnerability assessment. Others, not so well, but it wasn’t their fault. It was caused by lack of funding and resources. Going through this process showed us we had to prioritize some schools to bring everyone in the county to the same baseline. 

Once we had this school foundation in place, the next step was the pillars on top.  

Step 2: The Three Pillars of EMS, Fire, and Law Enforcement

With the school administrators sorted out, we then moved on to our emergency responders. Remember, you don’t want to just mandate from on high that this is the new system—you want buy-in from the entire team. It’s only when people believe in the value of something that they take responsibility for it and enact change.

We invited our first responders—EMS, fire, law enforcement—in for a lunch and I began with a little exercise: “How many people here have a kid or grandkid, a niece or nephew, in one of these schools?” Practically everyone in the room raised their hand. Maybe in your district not everyone will raise their hand, so you may want to expand the question. By personalizing it, you draw these people in.

Then, we showed them each school’s vulnerability assessment. For law enforcement, they looked at the layout of the building, including access control. EMS also looked at access points. For the fire department, it was seeing the areas identified as HAZMAT. That’s when the wheels started turning, especially for our fire crews that had recently been in this terrible situation with the hazardous materials in the train derailment. 

So when I then put to the group the question, “Do you want to work toward a new safety plan for every one of these schools your kids and grandkids go to?” the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Step 3: Building Our Roof with 911 Communications

911 communications is the roof that looks over all the elements of this structure we’re building.

Through Navigate Prepared, whenever an alarm is triggered in one of the schools, it activates all the mobile devices at the 911 center. We’ve also tied in our camera system into the platform, so the 911 center can monitor a situation in the school as it unfolds.

This is a significant difference from what we had before, because previously the 911 center did have access to school cameras, but it was presented to them as a bank of video with names like “Science Hallway” and “Third Wing Downstairs.” Do the people working in the 911 center know where the science hallway is in relation to the gym at that exact school? With NaviGate Prepared, they can simply pull up a floor plan, click on an icon, and there’s the camera for the science hallway. And they know where that situation is in relation to the rest of the school.

Seconds count in 911 situations. Knowing to take the back door instead of the front door can shave minutes off a call, and save a life.

I’ll give you an example where having the floor plan likely contributed to saving a student’s life. We got an EMS call from one of the rooms in our high school. A student was having a seizure. Standard EMS procedure is to pull up at the front of the school, come through the front door, and pull the gurney to the location of the incident. 

But what if there was a better way in?

The 911 center pulls up the floor plan: The room is actually in the back of the school and there’s an exterior door. So the 911 center tells EMS to take the access road and drive right up onto the grass by that back door. Knowing to go to the back door shaved minutes off that call. As we all know, seconds count in 911 situations. In this case, that student had stopped breathing, and if EMS had arrived minutes later, that student might not be here today 

How does this work into building the community-wide plan? Well, what works during school hours works after-hours too. The contact list in the NaviGate Prepared dashboard pays dividends because I’m no longer getting calls in the middle of the night asking, “Who do we call to open up the school?” If you need to move people to the school at two in the morning, all the contact info is there in the dashboard. 

How Does It Look When All the Parts Work Together?

To see how all the parts of this system can work in tandem, let’s look at NaviGate Prepared’s Respond app. As soon as someone on campus activates that app, it sounds mobile devices all through the area. We’re not talking just at the 911 center, but our EMS, fire, and law enforcement as well. Everyone is on alert that something is going on at that school.

You are likely familiar with old emergency protocols where everything flows through the school principal. The problem is that is even the best principal is just one person. They can’t be everywhere at all times. You always hear people in positions like mine saying, “If you see something, say something.” Now I tell school staff, “If you see something, activate the Respond app. The cavalry will be on their way.” It’s completely altered situational awareness on our campuses.

Working in the Sheriff’s Office for almost three decades, I’ve seen everything when it comes to school safety. We used to think we were ahead of the curve when we put safety flip charts in every classroom. Now, we are taking it to a whole new level with all that information available on a teacher’s mobile device.

Just look at what it does for even one part of an emergency procedure, like accountability. Some of our campuses contain an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. In that case, we’re talking 3,000 kids. Our old system of accountability—teachers using different-color cards—was inefficient. Now, with NaviGate Prepared, we can watch student accountability roll in on our mobile device. We know exactly who’s missing, immediately.

I mention teachers because now they’re part of the team. Our teachers have bought into NaviGate Prepared in a big way. Where safety procedure used to be an imposition or a stress point for them, now they feel empowered through the whole process. 

Don’t make school safety a burden for your teachers. For real results, empower them.

The common denominator here is that information flows so quickly through the whole system. I think of it as being similar to the difference Twitter made in getting news. 

It used to be you had to wait until the 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. news broadcast. Now, you get your news on Twitter throughout the day as it unfolds. It’s the same thing here: When a 911 call comes in or a NaviGate Prepared alarm is activated, the information is available to everyone potentially involved. All our emergency response vehicles now have some kind of device we can use to pull up any data from the system. This is community-wide preparedness in action. 

Never Be on Your Back Foot During an Emergency Again

Your schools, law enforcement, and 911 center may seem like separate entities, but safety only works if they’re all on the same page. Our community-wide safety initiative is truly collaborative. I hope our journey can serve as a roadmap for your own mission. 

I know I don’t ever want to be caught on my back foot in an emergency situation again. Neither do you. We know from examples like Columbine that when tragedy strikes a school, how we respond in the first 20 minutes will be remembered and judged for the next 20 years. So the question is: How do you want to be remembered?