Tag Archives: flaws in emergency management planning

Changing the Landscape of Emergency Management Legislation

During ‘crises’ — something as horrific and unexpected as a school shooting fits that criteria — immediate strategies have to be formed; prevailing narratives then have a direct impact on which coping strategies are selected.[1] As documented in the blog post published 16th February 2015, school shooting incidents have elucidated flaws in emergency management plans; this requires legislative response. In Colorado, the site of the Columbine school shooting (1999), the General Assembly passed the ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000), requiring each school district board in the state to adopt a emergency management plan, crisis management procedures, and employee training. This framework had to adhere to the ‘National Incident Management System’: a federal-level framework of four principles for responding to crises consisting of organisational structures and strategies, intended to allow first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies to be able to coordinate more effectively.[2]

Following the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, legislation was implemented the year after at the state-level. All institutions falling within the purview of higher education were mandated to have emergency management plans and coordinate these with local community ones; every year the president or vice-president of every institution is to review and make any necessary revisions to ensure it remains current, and the institution shall carry out a drill; after a period of four years, the plan is to be reviewed and submitted to the state ‘Department of Emergency Management.’

Although Colorado had already taken action in the past, the Virginia Tech shooting (2007) prompted the Governor of Colorado to make school safety a priority item once again. In 2008, he signed a bill which established the Colorado School Safety Resource Center to provide assistance and funding to schools in preparing for and responding to emergency situations. An existing Colorado statute was amended to include the addition of a sub-section provisioning funds for the school mapping information to first responders.

Moreover, the Colorado ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000) was amended in 2008 to include the requirement that all school districts had to incorporate components of the ‘National Response Framework’ into emergency management plans. The actions to be taken were: devising a plan to meet the date of compliance (1 July 2009); adopting the ‘National Incident Management System,’ the federal-level framework for dealing with emergencies and the ‘Incident Command System,’ as the management structures to organise and organise crisis responses; form relationships and communicate with local responders to check adherence to local, county and state level plans; define the roles and responsibilities of community partners through memoranda of understanding (known as MOU’s); engage in practice schedules, such as drills and tabletop (i.e. simulation) exercises; partake in an annual inventory of emergency equipment. Revised Statutes in the 2012 Colorado General Assembly made the legislative declaration that “emergency response and crisis management measures should be implemented in all communities within the state to protect students and school personnel.” The importance of emergency management plans, training and response means that legislation is an expected response to flaws; the next blog will discuss this in relation to law enforcement tactics.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents from Colorado and Virginia. Future blogs will look at a different dimension of emergency management, by exploring the response of law enforcement to school shooting incidents.]

[1] Fairclough, Isabela. and Norman Fairclough. (2012) Political Discourse Analysis: A Method for Advanced Students. London, New York: Routledge, 3, 16.

[2]  Definition taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (n.d.) ‘National Incident Management System,’ https://www.fema.gov/national-incident-management-system


Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.