Staying in control of communications during emergencies at schools and early childhood centres
“In an emergency situation parents appreciate having info quickly…It helps to stop the rumour mill before it really gets churning.”
Office Administrator, Newlands School
Lessons from our partner schools
If there is one thing we’ve learnt from the recent earthquakes and extreme weather events is that it takes hardy technology and a well-prepared team of staff, parents and students to effectively deal with emergencies at school.
Earthquakes, cyclones, snowstorms, flooding, tsunamis, and tornadoes seem to be occurring on a more regular basis. Since the Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, School-links have become a leading authority on communication as part of emergency response management in the education sector. We have learned from our partner schools as they have navigated everything from water outages and weather events, to intruders and arson.
In this White Paper we have divided emergency response management into three areas, sharing lessons learned from our partner schools over the last decade and more:
communicating through an emergency
resourcing your emergency communication
preparing your emergency communication
Note: this guide should be used in conjunction with the information provided on the Ministry of Education’s website on emergency management planning. Our guide is focused solely on our area of expertise - the role of communications in Emergency Response Management.
"Within 10 minutes of the tornado passing through our area (just as the 3.p.m. bell had rung) we were able to reassure all our parents that all children were safe. Many parents told us that as they were hearing and seeing reports of the devastation and damage and phone lines were jammed. A simple reassuring text and email was invaluable."
Principal, Albany Primary School
1. Communicating through an emergency
The single biggest challenge in an emergency situation to avoid anxious moments for all involved is to enable a free flow of information.
Today there are sophisticated, yet simple to use systems available to schools that allow them to connect and communicate with staff, parents/caregivers and students across multiple communication channels.
Emergency Alert Systems notify parents and caregivers by text and email and are accessible via PC or a smart device such as a phone or iPad, enabling staff to get urgent messages out from their own home, school grounds in the event of an evacuation, or whilst on a school camp or trip.
1) The importance of text messaging
Experience has shown that schools should ideally use every channel of communication available, including social media and school website updates should time and access allow, but that in the event of an emergency sending a text message is critical for the following reasons:
There is a 98% open rate for text messages and they are generally read within 2 minutes of receipt, making it the ultimate tool for an urgent situation.
Parents/caregivers will receive the message no matter their location – 98.5% of the population now have mobile phone coverage.
You are not relying on an app. Current estimates point to only 30-60% of parents having downloaded a school app and even less have notifications turned on.
You are not relying on social media where coverage can be arbitrary, particularly during work hours. Social media posts can also instigate online discussion where messaging can become confused with people sharing other organisations’ responses.
Jenny Clark, Principal of Morrinsville Intermediate, arrived at school at 6.40am and the water supply was very weak. Unable to contact the local Council for more information and needing to let children using buses know what was happening, she decided that the school would be unable to guarantee a supply water nor the level of contamination, so for health and safety reasons decided to close the school:
“I texted the whole school at 7.15am to notify them of a school closure. It was the perfect tool for this scenario when I needed to get a message out fast. I hadn’t used the Emergency Alerts app for over a year, but it was so straightforward.”
Stephen Walters, Deputy Principal of Kaiapoi High School reflecting on the Christchurch earthquake aftershocks:
Following the Kaikoura earthquake single story buildings in Wellington only required a visual check, whereas two story buildings needed an engineer’s assessment. Office Administrator, Newlands School recalls:
“It allowed us to immediately communicate with our parents no matter where they were as some parents got stuck in traffic for over a couple of hours. Our ability to send a text message to tell them what was happening here at school reassured the parents. It took away the unknown.”
“There was so much uncertainty in the community. There were mixed messages coming from local authorities, other organisations, the media and the grapevine, so some people thought that all schools were closed that day. Wherever we were we knew we could get a message out quickly. We used School-links to communicate the facts and stomp on the rumours. Parents knew exactly what we were doing, whereas with some other schools there was a lot of confusion.”
2. Resourcing your Emergency Communication
There are a number of Emergency Alert Systems available in New Zealand. Key features to look for include:
Track record: use a tried and tested text-based system that has been proven in emergency situations. You should expect receipt rates in the high 90%s.
Data synchronization: ability to sync with your Student Management System ensuring that your contact information is up to date. Providers that specialize in the education sector often have a deeper understanding and closer relationship with Student Management Systems developers than more general alert system companies.
Ability to send messages from your mobile phone in the event you have to evacuate, there is a power outage, you are on a school trip, or the event occurs outside of school hours.
Ability to see who has and has not received the message to allow for follow up communications as required.
NZ-based support: use a reputable company with in-country support and training. Your emergency response is too important to take risks with.
Contingency planning: following widespread damage to infrastructure cell towers can go down. In this case access to email in addition to text messaging is a pre-requisite of your Emergency Alert System.
Principal, Lytton High School, who switched to an Emergency Alerts Systems following a school bomb threat and a major town wide power cut that occurred at 9.15am on a Monday – both happening within the same month, highlights the need for a means of communicating via accurate parent/caregiver contact information:
“I know there’s a lot of messaging apps out there, but ours is great because it can talk to KAMAR, and that’s important for us. That means that our information is as accurate as our information in KAMAR is. A lot of these other apps look real nice, they’re cool, but I could see that you’d have difficulties integrating your SMS.”
Principal, Northlands School following the Kaikoura earthquake:
“I had to get the property checked so I needed to let the community know quickly that the school was not going to be open on that Monday morning. So I got my mobile, clicked on the School-links app, put in my password, composed a message and pushed send; it took less than a minute."
Andrew Balfour, Managing Director of School-links, New Zealand’s leading school communication provider comments:
“Following the recent Cyclone Gabrielle, school leaders sent text email messages to their staff and parents/caregivers using our Emergency Alerts App which they could access on their mobile phones. Where they were unsure about access to internet or phone coverage this meant they were covering all bases. Our schools also had access to our 0800 support line 24/7 throughout the crisis. If they could call us from a mobile or land line, we could get messages out to their parent/caregiver contact database. We mitigate the impact of an emergency on our own communications by having staff located throughout the country.”
Don’t forget the simple things
Sometimes, there are obvious things that are quite often taken for granted until an event happens and then you realise it suddenly becomes an important item to have. When the school runs through a rehearsal, ensure that staff and even students make a note of what would have been useful and add it to your ‘comms grab bag’.
Other communication tools in your ‘comms grab bag’ could include:
Fully charged iPad or laptop – and charger in the event you have access to a generator
Portable radio and batteries
Battery operated PA system
Hard copies of class lists and emergency contacts
High-vis vest with a demarcated role emblazoned ‘Communications’
The school administrator at Halswell Primary School pointed out that during the Christchurch earthquakes, pens were a valuable commodity:
“Now, beside my desk I have an emergency file with pens attached to it. In the earthquake, we didn’t have pens, we just had the list of student names which we thought ‘oh, that’s fine’, but how do you mark a child off if you haven’t got a pen? So, we used the liquefaction!”
3. Preparing your Emergency Communication
Review your current plans and review them again. It is better to be overprepared than be taken by surprise.
Visit the current Ministry of Education Emergency Response Checklist to view.
In addition, we suggest considering some lessons our schools have learned over the years. Your school could discuss and think about implementing these recommendations in your current plans.
Designate roles in advance
Within your Incident Management Team establish:
who is the communications person – frequently an office administrator and a deputy principal or lead teacher.
what they are communicating – initial alerts, updates during, and information in the aftermath, or will the Principal for example assume responsibility post-event.
how they are communicating – text and email via an Emergency Alerts System, social media, school website, phone, notice board, digital signage.
You also need to establish ‘back-up’ personnel so that staff who may have been impacted by the event onsite, or their family impacted elsewhere, can be relieved.
Amy Carter, Managing Partner of Carter, Price, Rennie, a formidable public relations/ communications company on the Christchurch earthquakes encourages people to not forget the noticeboard:
“Old school communications became as important as digital. We identified where people had gathered immediately after the earthquakes – local dairies, fire stations and particularly schools. We put up community notice boards in these locations, and we would update them as required.”
Designate zones in advance
Many schools after the Christchurch earthquakes realized the value of designated zones and established an assembly area, triage area, a children pick-up area, and a communications area.
The communications area needs to be a secure area away from students where transparent conversations can be held with emergency services, authorities and parents without triggering panic amongst the children. The advantage of including walkie-talkies in your ‘comms grab bag’ means that the person in charge of communications can be a discrete distance from other operations but still easily keep the rest of the Incident Management Team and the Principal informed as events unfold.
Having an area where the parents can arrive separate from where the children are assembled can be critical to controlling communications, managing the flow of information as well as reducing the risk of spreading panic.
A by-product of the separate collection area is easier enforcement of sign out procedures so that children aren’t collected by well-meaning friends of parents unbeknown to the school or parents, and avoids distressed parents overlooking signing out in when in a state of panic or shock.
“We identified that just assembling people in one place and hoping that it will all sort itself out does not work. You actually need a number of discreet areas. We’ve gone from everyone just hanging around the tennis courts waiting for the all clear to some people at the tennis courts managing the assembly area, some staff at the triage area, some staff at the children pick-up area, and some people at the communications area.”
Stephen Walters, Kaiapoi High School following the Christchurch earthquakes:
Set up template messages that are ready to go
Due to telco technology the maximum amount of characters in a text is 160. Composing a message with limited characters in an emergency situation can be stressful so prepare your text messages in advance. Include the name of the school in your message to avoid confusion if a parent/caregiver has children at multiple schools. Many schools use the text messages for short updates, directing parents/caregivers to emails for more detailed information that maybe relayed during or after an incident. These emails can also be prepared in advance and saved as drafts.
Emergency response training
While first aid and basic CPR training are now pre-requisites at most schools, there are special skills needed to play specific roles in an emergency including managing communication with parents etc.
At least two senior members of your emergency response team should be aware of how to use your Emergency Alerts System to be able to keep staff, parents and caregivers informed. Ensure your provider delivers regular online training and support.
Office Administrator at Roxborough Area School:
“We have a few snow days now and again and we use School-links to alert staff and students. I have some template messages already set up so either myself, or the Deputy Principal or my offsider can simply press send using the School-links Emergency Alerts App. The beauty is that there is no app required, parents have enough apps in their lives!”
Drills, drills and more drills
While fire drills are mandatory and must be practised in accordance with building and fire regulations, Civil Defence & Emergency Management (CDEM) recommend that other scenarios such as earthquake “Drop, cover, hold” and tsunami “Long or strong, get gone” drills (if appropriate to your school’s location) are held at least annually.
CDEM suggest holding a drill at the end of the school day and asking parents to arrange for their child to be collected from the evacuation destination. This is an opportunity for parents to practise their household plan and for early learning services and schools to practise their family reunification procedure. This is also an opportunity to practice your communication plan, ensuring of course that everyone is aware that it is a drill.
Hold a debrief after the drill to discuss ways to improve. The entire community, including students, should be encouraged to suggest ways to improve the evacuation drill including improvements to your communication plan.
Civil Defence & Emergency Management
“The most important part of any drill is the discussion and the updated action plan that comes from the experience.”
Raising awareness with parents/caregivers
Keeping parents up to date with the latest information on emergency preparedness at the school reassures them that the school administration is making an effort to keep their children safe. Distributing this information regularly in school newsletters, on the school website and at parent-teacher events helps parents stay aware of all the arrangements that may be put in place in case of an emergency and they know what is expected of them and where to access information.
The Ministry of Education provide an editable template summarising the key emergency management information parents and caregivers should know about your school or early learning service. The Ministry also frequently sends out information for schools to circulate, for example during Covid-19 and States of Emergency. This can be shared via email, with a text alert to notify parents to check their emails.
“Without School-links communicating would have been onerous. We simply got the information from the Ministry of Education, personalised them, emailed them out and sent a text message asking parents to please check their emails. We had such positive feedback from our community. They found all our messaging to be relevant, on time and on point.”
Julie Dawick, Deputy Principal, Cambridge Middle School on communicating through Covid-19:
Conclusion: your Emergency Response Communications Checklist
When it’s about the physical safety of our children, no amount of preparedness can be too much. In an incident, managing all the children in the school as well as establishing and maintaining constant contact with parents can be challenging. That’s why it’s important to invest in tools and systems that will allow you to stay on top of every situation. An Emergency Alert System, emergency kits, a continually refined response plan, and constant practice for everyone involved will ensure that anxiety levels moderated.
If you’re wondering whether your school is absolutely prepared to deal with any emergency, ask yourself these questions and talk to us – we’ll help you find the answers.
Is there an Emergency Management Plan that every school staff member has read and has a copy of that includes your communications plan?
Do you have a means of communicating with staff, students and parents/caregivers that includes text messaging?
Does your Emergency Alerts System enable you to communicate if the emergency situation requires you to leave the school building, in the event of a power outage, or if you yourself are offsite?
Does your Emergency Alert System let you check who has received your alert in the event of an emergency?
Do you have communication templates set up for all risks identified in your Emergency Management Plan?
Do you have designated communication personnel in the event of an emergency?
Do you have backup personnel to replace your designated staff in the event they are unable to fulfil their role?
Are your designated personnel trained on your Emergency Alerts System?
Do you have a ‘comms grab bag’ and is the location of the bag widely known?
Do you have an appropriate designated ‘Communications’ base in the event of an evacuation?
Do you have a plan to coordinate with parents in case phone lines go down?
Are parents and caregivers up to date on your emergency management procedures, including your communication plan?
School-links expressly disclaims all warranties, expressed or implied, including but not limited to implied warranties as to the accuracy of the contents of this document. In no event shall School-links be liable for any injury, expenses, profits, loss or damage, direct, incidental, or consequential, or any other pecuniary loss arising out of the use of or reliance on the information described in this document. Not to be reproduced without the permission of School-links Copyright © 2023 School-links.