Establishing a Family Reunification Center

One critical component for dealing with a major school crisis is the family reunification center. In major school emergencies, the crisis management process will work most effectively if students and staff are quickly evacuated to a remote location and parents and loved ones go to that location, instead of converging on the school.


When a Crisis Occurs


A major obstacle for schools and public safety personnel during school crisis situations is the tendency for incredible numbers of people to rush to the school. The media normally monitor public safety radio frequencies for potential news stories and will typically announce that a crisis has occurred within minutes of the first radio traffic from public safety responders.


This problem is becoming even more severe following the highly publicized tragedies that have taken place at schools during the past two years. It is common for the enormous flood of concerned relatives and curious onlookers seriously to hamper public safety response. Often, several relatives arrive at the school for each student or staff member. If this process is not managed properly, vehicles will quickly block streets around the school, making it difficult or impossible for emergency vehicles to maneuver. Another concern is the collapse of phone communications from overload.


The school safety committee or crisis response team should work with local public safety and emergency management personnel to plan a family reunification center protocol, including rapid movement of people to that site. For many school systems, it is a good idea to select one site for all schools in the community, with other site options. The site must be available on a moment’s notice every school day during the year. Having a different site for each school is likely to cause confusion during the critical early stages of the incident. For very large districts, multiple sites will probably be required for schools in different parts of the district.


Public safety officials must be involved in the planning process to ensure that they can provide support for the reunification center to serve its purpose. For large schools, the site must be able to accommodate several thousand vehicles and people. Public safety workers need to be prepared to deal with the problems posed by large numbers of emotionally upset individuals. The bulk of the initial mental health personnel responses should be focused on this location rather than the incident site.


It is often best to have a command post near the incident scene with a second command post at the reunification center. Planning will be required to ensure that this command post can be quickly established to handle the reunification process. Often, agencies such as the local emergency management agency or the American Red Cross will accept this responsibility. Members of the local school crisis team, including members of the affected school team, should immediately respond to the reunification center to set up an orderly reunification process. An area for debriefing and written information for parents on traumatic stress response should be provided. An emergency evacuation kit containing records of all students and staff should be rushed to the site to ensure that students are properly released to the appropriate legal guardians.


Informing the Community


It is critical that the local media be quickly contacted (within the first five to 10 minutes of the crisis) to begin directing parents and relatives to the reunification center. Prepared statements should be on hand at all local radio and television stations for station personnel to read during a crisis. These instructions should explain to the public that it is critical that:


    • Parents and relatives should not respond to the incident site to allow public safety personnel time to respond to the incident.

    • Students will be released only to approved adults with photo identification, at the reunification site.

    • All members of the community should avoid driving anywhere within several blocks of the incident site.

    • All members of the community should avoid using cellular phones for the first several hours of the situation. This is to help keep cellular phone service from collapsing, as it has in a number of school crisis events. School and public safety officials may be heavily reliant on cellular service during a crisis.

    • Concerned parties should not call the school, school police or security office, school board office, or public safety dispatch centers to get information regarding the incident or particular students and employees. Personnel at these locations will be extremely busy, and often do not have information regarding each evacuee. Inquiries severely hamper efforts to manage the crisis properly.


While these instructions should be on hand for all electronic media, the school system crisis team should have a procedure in place to fax additional copies to the media in the event that the statements have been misplaced or forgotten. Simultaneously, a sheet containing the location of the selected family reunification site and a very brief description of the crisis should also be faxed.


Timing is important. Announcing the location of the reunification site ahead of time will increase the danger to those who come to the site, if a follow-up bombing or shooting is planned at that site. Failure to send reunification location information quickly to the media will result in the massive response to the school that the protocol is designed to prevent.


While we all hope that we will never need to use a family reunification center, we cannot wait for a major crisis to plan for one. Having a well-thought-out plan, developed in cooperation with area public safety officials, can be a tremendous asset if a crisis strikes a school.


About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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