A thorough chain of command, well-prepared emergency plans, and strong relations with both local and state emergency officials are critical for school districts to have in place before a disaster strikes. And when a disaster does strike, it is paramount to document and keep as many records as possible — despite being in a chaotic, fluid and often devastating situation.
These lessons learned were shared March 6 by Sonoma County officials who led districts and school communities through the area’s deadly October 2017 wildfires. They spoke at a California Department of Education event, the first in a series of workshops focused on how district and school leaders can better prepare for and respond to natural disasters. CDE staff and representatives from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services were also featured panelists.
The heightened focus comes as natural disasters are a new normal. Since 2017, 12 schools in California have been destroyed, 14 have been damaged, and 7,000 students and 900 staff members have lost their homes, according to the CDE.
It also follows emotional testimony to the State’s Assembly Education Committee in February from educators and leaders on the impacts of wildfires in their communities. Butte County Office of Education trustee and CSBA Immediate Past President Mike Walsh was among those who spoke.
“Just a few years ago, this would not have been a topic that would have been lifted up for districts,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said on March 6. The new normal now, he said, is that the CDE is working with many partners to address the needs of districts as they relate to wildfires and other disasters.
As part of the effort, the department has developed disaster preparedness resources. Items range from checklists to air quality guides to information on trauma counseling. Additionally, questions related to emergency preparedness, response and recovery can be submitted at any time to EmergencyServices@cde.ca.gov.
Similar to the state, CSBA is developing resources that will help schools better prepare for, mitigate and recover from wildfires and other natural disasters.
Before and when disaster strikes
Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington said a reality that hit early on during the deadly Tubbs Fire was that local educational agencies need a long list of people ready to step into roles during emergencies. The usual people trained and prepared to lead in the chain of command may be unable to fulfill their roles due to evacuations or other personal reasons when disaster strikes, he said.
Erin Tarkanian said she was third in line to step into an emergency operations center command role for the county’s schools, but took the reins as the fire began because the first two people were unable to make it to the command center.
The takeaway, CDE School Facilities and Transportation Services Division Director Juan Mireles said, is “having a backup, and having a backup for the backup.”
Ron Calloway further illustrated the need for immediate and direct communication. The superintendent of Mark West Union School District northeast of Santa Rosa, Calloway had to worry about protecting his schools as well as his home the night the Tubbs Fire began. His family was forced to evacuate their home, but duty called. “The first command center was actually at my in-law’s house,” he said.
With external communications, Herrington and Calloway said emergency plans should include information about media and community relations. Plans should clearly state who will speak to the media and how other staff should refer inquiries, to ensure district messaging is consistent across all communications.
Mireles also said it is crucial for districts to have detailed inventories of their facilities, equipment and other assets captured through both photos and video. The information will be useful both during the response and recovery process, he said.
In general, when preparing for the scope of a disaster, a good rule of thumb is “to think bigger about what your emergency might look like,” said Rose Burcina, executive director of Redwood Empire Schools’ Insurance Group.
Recovery process and resuming operations
In a disaster’s aftermath, Herrington said the immediate concern should turn to resuming school and returning students and staff to a sense of normalcy. However, obstacles often arise in the form of debris, damage, ash, smoke and toxic waste.
Burcina said an existing agreement allowed a much larger firm than hers to come onto the scene at schools and assess the damage. The company was also able to provide the names of vetted contractors to perform recovery work, meaning officials didn’t need to scramble to find fair prices and reputable operations.
“We needed boots on the ground so that we could actually facilitate this recovery and get the schools open as soon as the superintendents were able to do that,” Burcina said. The county ended up changing thousands of air filters in schools as well as washing down some of the buildings.
Mireles said many school boards will waive the normal bid process to allow their districts to quickly proceed with recovery efforts, but he cautioned that there can be instances in which doing so can compromise future reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Calloway said it is essential for districts to keep meticulous records of all aspects of the response and recovery process. “Document, document, document. That’s the key word here when you go for FEMA support,” he said. He recommends officials learn about the agency and its complex rules and regulations before an emergency arises.
Amid all of the chaos, contracts and clean-up, Herrington said he kept the most important assets, the people, in the front of his mind. The most important needs ranged from making sure staff had paychecks to making sure they had places to stay. “It was about being human with everyone and working that through,” he said.
Top tips for district officials and boards
- Develop a communications plan. The plan should identify a single voice who will provide a consistent message. Make sure the communications plan takes into account all audiences —parents, students, community members and the media.
- Prepare for the worst-case scenario. It is difficult to know precisely how long an emergency will last. History has proven these events tend to last longer, and impact a greater area, than anticipated at the onset of the emergency.
- It takes a village to manage a disaster. Develop a relationship with regional, county and state emergency services personnel, the California Department of Education, insurance carriers and FEMA representative. These agencies will be your best friends during an emergency, and it is best to establish those relationships in advance.
- The show must go on. It is difficult to think clearly during a disaster, but it is important to remember that there are essential services that must be attended to. Make sure staff has access to resources such as cellphones, radios, laptops and district documents in the event their place of work is not accessible as a result of the disaster.
- Make sure staff has redundancy plans in place. Emergencies can affect not only the schools, but the surrounding community, including employees. As a result, plans should identify two or three backups for each identified position in the event someone is unable report to work.
- Everyone should know their role. Take the time today to develop an emergency organization plan that identifies processes and procedures that will be implemented in the event of an emergency. This will ensure those essential functions are being performed and there is an established chain of command.
- Document, document, document. Maintain a list of all school properties with detailed information about each of the sites. Take pictures of the buildings and the surrounding landscape. FEMA requires information about the structures and their surroundings when it evaluates reimbursement claims. It is easier to have this information ready and available now than to worry about collecting it after an emergency.
- The human factor. Emergencies have a terrible effect on people that don’t simply go away when the emergency ends. Plan on providing counselors and support staff both for the short term and long term for students and district staff.
- Practice your plan. An emergency plan is not made to sit on a shelf. The return on investment of a comprehensive and well-practiced plan could literally be the difference between life or death.