School Severe Weather and Natural Disaster Response

It Only Takes One Storm. We Have to be Prepared.

Although experts often predict when severe weather will impact our communities, there are times when Mother Nature can surprise us. Creating protocols to keep students and staff safe during various natural hazards should be part of a school district’s EOP.

“With the reunification software, we are able to ensure the safety of our students on campus and consult with our local police department… By using a reunification system that does the quick ID scan, it helps us to ensure we’re releasing students to the people we need to be releasing them to.”

Midlothian Independent School District, TX

“With the reunification software, we are able to ensure the safety of our students on campus and consult with our local police department… By using a reunification system that does the quick ID scan, it helps us to ensure we’re releasing students to the people we need to be releasing them to.”

Midlothian Independent School District, TX

1

Before: Prepare and Practice

One of the most important components of response is being prepared before inclement weather or natural disasters impact your region. This includes understanding what disaster you’re most likely to experience and having a robust plan for quick, coordinated response. Each geographic region can experience different combinations of disasters, as illustrated below.
Most Common Disaster Types by Region

Write a School Severe Weather Disaster Plan 

Your disaster plan is part of your school emergency operations plan (EOP). It should outline the action your school will take to prepare for, respond to, and recover from weather-related incidents. When writing your disaster plan, you should collaborate with your county’s emergency management director and seek guidance from your state’s department of education and agencies like the National Weather Service (NWS) and the American Red Cross. Tailor your plan to your specific school and plan for the worst-case scenarios. 

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Webinar

Explore what it means to have a multi-hazard emergency management plan and dig into some of the crucial aspects of developing one for your schools. Learn More.

Choose a Disaster Coordinator 

Schools should designate a responsible staff member or group of individuals as the Disaster Coordinator(s). Your coordinator(s) attend local weather and disaster training and are responsible for creating your plan with the appropriate school staff, community organizations, and first responders. 

Determine School Safety Zones 

Schools should work with architects or engineers who are familiar with the campus and, as appropriate, their local fire department and county emergency managers to determine the safety zones. These zones are where school staff, students, and visitors will seek shelter. When determining the zones, think about:

  • Travel time – ensure zones are accessible within three minutes
  • Size of space – confirm that it can fit everyone assigned and that it’s accessible to individuals with special needs or disabilities
  • Safety – make sure that the zone is free of hazards, such as windows, exterior doors, or expansive roofs
  • Flood plains and elevation – verify the zone won’t flood
  • On the road – consider shelter areas for bus drivers and riders who are on the road

Evacuations can be necessary if your building is no longer safe and/or suffers damage such as loss of power, roof collapse, broken windows, or flooding. Schools should pick a primary evacuation site—and multiple backup options—that can safely house everyone on campus.

Receive the Latest Weather Information
Ensuring you receive accurate weather information and fast can be the difference in how many individuals suffer injury or loss of life. The fastest method to receive weather information is through the NOAA Weather Radio, which is a network of radio stations that continuously broadcasts information directly from the NWS. If your district or school does not receive an adequate signal from the NOAA Weather Radio, you can use the NWS’s mobile and desktop application, InteractiveNWS, that sends alerts via text and mobile web pages.

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Strategies for Effective K-12 Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery
Responding and recovering from a severe weather event starts with creating a plan to keep everyone safe. Learn More.
Know When to Activate Your Plan

Depending on the type of disaster, expected impact on your campus, and the timing, it may be best to activate your plan in phases. For example, a thunderstorm may only require you to move students from dangerous areas, like your portable classrooms or the track field, into a physical building. However, if the storm strengthens and leads to a tornado warning or watch, you must be prepared to activate your full response plan and move everyone into their assigned safety zones. 


TIP:
Just like your EOP, your disaster plan is only valuable if the procedures are routinely practiced. Drills familiarize your school and community with your plan as well as individual responsibilities, roles, and actions.

2

During: Respond and Stay Safe

Every storm, every region, and every school are different. When you find yourself in a severe weather event—or preparing for inclement weather—it’s important to understand when to activate various components of your severe weather plan. 
Responses to Different Types of Storms

Below is some guidance to help you determine what steps to take based on common weather events that are typically predictable.

  • Tornado, Flash Flood, or Severe Thunderstorm Watch: Postpone outdoor activities and move students from mobile classrooms and/or outdoor facilities and fields into the physical building. Monitor weather alerts for updates as the storm approaches your school.
  • Severe Thunderstorm Warning: If your school is in the path of the storm, complete all tasks above and be prepared for high winds, possible hail, and flooding.
  • Tornado Warning: Immediate and full activation of your plan is required. Move everyone to the lower-level of your buildings (if possible) and into the assigned safety zones. Everyone should take the “tornado safe” position and be prepared to take shelter for at least 45 minutes. Hold students and staff in the classrooms, even if it is time to move class periods or dismiss students from school. Students are safer at school than on the road when severe weather strikes.
  • Hurricane, Tropical Storm, and Depressions Watch: Continue to monitor the situation and be ready to act quickly if the storm is upgraded to a Warning.
  • Hurricane Warning: Be prepared for hurricane-force winds and possible flooding. Monitor the hurricane’s path and intensity. It is highly recommended to close schools and evacuate the area before the hurricane begins to impact your community.
  • Winter Storm Watch: Continue to monitor weather conditions and be prepared to respond when/if the watch is upgraded to a Warning.
  • Winter Storm Warning: Consider sending your designated security team to check roads for ice or snow. Assess current weather conditions and determine whether to cancel, delay, or hold classes.
School Cancellations and Delays

It’s important to keep your school community’s safety top of mind when deciding when to cancel, delay, or hold normal classes. These decisions depend on many factors, including but not limited to:

  • What meteorologists and regional emergency officials recommend
  • How much time you have before the storm hits your school or if the storm is already active
  • The probability of the storm strengthening and what impact the storm will have
  • Will students and staff will be put in danger if they are released from school
  • If students will be exposed to extreme rain, wind, heat, or cold either at school or at bus stops
Alerting Staff and Students
A school panic button and emergency notification system can greatly expedite awareness throughout your entire school. With a click of a mouse, any authorized user can instantly alert your campus of the emergency. The panic button system should also empower any authorized user to initiate weather-related emergencies directly on their mobile phones from wherever they are located.

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Raptor Alert Video

Raptor Alert is a silent panic alert system that works on the devices your schools use every day.
The most powerful panic buttons enable native, bi-directional integration with your digital security systems and peripherals. This means you can activate an emergency response from a single point instead of activating separate systems. It also allows each component to talk to one another. This speeds notifications and minimizing the impact of the situation.
Accounting for Students and Staff
A core component of any emergency response is making sure everyone is accounted for. Empowering teachers and staff to account for themselves as well as everyone else on campus—including students, visitors, guardians, and contractors—immediately after an alert goes out and they occupy their assigned safety zone is critical.

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Webinar

A natural disaster can affect your school with little to no warning. After the event, the community expects you to have a plan. Are you ready?
Learn More.

Follow Your Emergency Operations Plan
It’s crucial for students, staff, faculty, and first responders to follow the school’s emergency procedures. In a chaotic, stressful emergency, however, staff may forget exactly what steps to take. Best practice is to have an emergency management solution that allows users like your teachers, staff, first responders, and incident commanders to have quick and easy access to your protocols, maps, and critical documents in one application.
Provide Accurate Information to First Responders and Incident Commanders
Incident commanders and first responders need a clear, real-time line of sight for every person on campus. They need to see details of each individual, including their location, status, medical conditions, and allergies. If they are students, it should also list their guardians’ contact information.

3

After: Recover and Reunite

Once the disaster or weather-related event has passed, schools need to assess the damage, and if evacuation was required, reunite students with guardians.
Raptor school reunification software
Assess the Damage
Once safe, walk through your school buildings to look for damage before releasing students and staff from the safety zones. Remember to check school playgrounds, tracks, fields, stadiums, and bleachers for damage. Announce an “All Clear” message when you determine that students and staff can safely exit the safety zones and return to normal operations.
Reunify Students with Approved Guardians After Natural Disaster
Whether the school evacuated to a shelter or needs to conduct an on-site reunification, schools need a plan to reunite students with their guardians as quickly and safely as possible.

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Case Study

Weatherford (TX) ISD Evacuates School for Toxic Leak, Reunifies 99% of 369 Students by Lunchtime. Download Now

Knowing student status—including if the student is missing or injured—is critical. This information can easily be lost in the chaos of a reunification that relies on pen-and-paper methods. Best practice is to give teachers, staff, first responders, and incident commanders instant access to real-time student data, status, and location. Ideally, this information is housed in your emergency management software that you used to account for everyone during the severe weather event.

An emergency management system with a reunification component can improve the process and eliminate inaccuracy.

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Video – Midlothian High School Case Study

Watch how Raptor collaborated with school and city staff for a parent-student reunification exercise at Midlothian ISD (TX).

Debrief and Improve Processes 

Your school’s safety hinges on how you implement lessons learned from drills, exercises, and real-life crises. Your coordinator(s), safety team, applicable first responders, staff, and students should debrief to review your plan and discuss what can be improved. The best assessment requires a method to track data and create comprehensive reports. Technology collects performance data to show what is working and how you can better protect your students and staff. Reports enable you to demonstrate how well your school community responded to the crisis.
“[With the reunification software, we are] able to ensure the safety of our students on campus and consult with our local police department… By [using a reunification system] that does the quick [ID] scan, it helps us to ensure we’re releasing students to the people we need to be releasing them to.” Midlothian Independent School District, TX

4

Operate as a Disaster Shelter

Schools make a perfect emergency and disaster shelter for communities. There are many reasons for this: schools are in nearly every community, they are constructed to withstand strong winds, and they have large gathering spaces, like cafeterias and auditoriums, that can house hundreds—if not thousands—of evacuees.

Operating a shelter and ensuring everyone stays safe can be challenging. The shelter needs to be welcoming to the entire community, but it’s also the staff’s responsibility to make sure dangerous individuals are supervised and/or kept separated from others (like keeping registered sex offenders away from minors).

Mental health concerns, like depression and anxiety, can increase in times of disaster, especially considering that many evacuees are facing hardships like losing loved ones or their belongings to the disaster. Gang activity, drug or alcohol use, and theft are also common safety incidents that shelters must address quickly before the situation escalates.

Verify Identity and Streamline Registration

Every entrant, including media, must sign into the shelter upon arrival and sign out before they leave. This allows you to have an accurate headcount of who is in the facility, which is critical to maintain fire safety and account for people if you need to evacuate. You should collect the date and time each person checked in, as well as their full name, contact information, and any medical conditions or special needs.

Ask certain health questions, like if the person is injured or has lost a loved one in the disaster, to determine if the evacuee should see your mental health support team. Make sure to keep all registrant information secure and protected. You also should ask COVID-19 health screening questions so you can place those with exposure risk in a separated area.

It’s important to note that it is the shelter’s responsibility to keep shelter residents safe, including keeping sex offenders separated from children.

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Video – Raptor Visitor Management

Over 50,000 K-12 schools worldwide trust Raptor to screen and track their campus visitors, contractors, and volunteers.
A visitor management system can streamline the registration process, create accurate reporting, and perhaps most importantly, screen every entrant against the sex offender databases in all 50 states. Verifying this information will help you follow applicable, local laws and place those individuals in areas away from children.
Screen, Approve, and Track Volunteers
It’s crucial to know precisely who is volunteering in your shelter, especially since they may be responsible for registering evacuees and providing care to children and disabled persons. Volunteers through the American Red Cross, the most well-known disaster partner, are screened and complete a background check. However, people in your community, like your parents/guardians, may want to volunteer through your school. Many times, they ask immediately before, during, or after the disaster, leaving the school little time to complete a manual screening process.

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Volunteer Management Video

See how to customize your volunteer application based on state requirements and your policies

An automated school volunteer management system can streamline the application process, track hours, and quickly confirm each volunteer is safe to work with evacuees and keep their personal information secure. The system should integrate with your visitor management system and provide a customizable online volunteer application, full criminal background checks, volunteer hour tracking, and robust reporting. It should even help you track virtual volunteers (those who are working ‘behind the scenes’ and not physically at the shelter.)
Address Safety Issues with a Mobile Panic Button

To help maintain a safe shelter environment, it’s important that everyone is prepared to address and resolve safety issues. Some of the most common issues include:

  • Weapons
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Using or selling illegal drugs
  • Theft or damage of personal or shelter property
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Gang activity

To streamline reporting of safety incidents and to request the right help immediately—from wherever the staff member or volunteer is in the facility—you should leverage a mobile panic button. Initiating the button should alert shelter management and security personnel of the incident, so they can respond accurately and promptly before the situation escalates.

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