The First 30 Seconds

A foreseeable and preventable mass casualty loss of human life could take place in the first minute 
of a crisis event if you have not specifically empowered, trained and allowed all employees to take immediate lifesaving action without first contacting a supervisor.

This is what I commonly refer to as “permission to live.” Ninety-five students and staff died in the Our Lady of Angels School fire from this type of gap in 1958. Such deaths are foreseeable events that can and should be reasonably addressed through modern approaches to staff development and school crisis planning concepts.

Many fatal school crisis situations involve critical delays in the implementation of lifesaving action steps, like room clear, lockdown, sheltering from severe weather, reverse evacuation or other critical steps. Structured interviews with school employees from public and non-public school employees, from some of the smallest schools and districts in the nation to some of the largest, have been most revealing. These assessments and actual crisis events have demonstrated how fast catastrophic plan failure can occur in schools that have spent vast sums of money, time and energy on school crisis planning, but have not properly empowered, trained and otherwise prepared school employees to make life and death decisions with limited information and under immense time pressure.

In the 1958 school fire, no staff member pulled the fire alarm for an estimated five minutes after the fire was discovered. Precious time, and even more precious lives, were lost while staff attempted to locate the school’s principal. As with the majority of K-12 schools today, the monthly school fire drills were always initiated by the principal pulling the fire alarm. When we look at the research on how the human brain works under stress, it becomes clear that the staff members in the school were inadvertently conditioned not to evacuate until the principal pulled the alarm. Some teachers even ordered students who were begging to evacuate to kneel and pray the rosary.

Based on reviews of a number of actual incidents, as well as more than 1,000 structured simulations with school staff from many districts and non public schools across the nation, our analysts have identified some common indicators that school-level employees are more likely to miss the chance to save human lives.
  • School crisis plans that have been purchased or copied — “a plan in a can.” These can be very difficult to defend in court and fail often because they do not address local conditions and resources adequately. If you can buy it, it will probably fail.
  • Web-based school crisis planning components for school-based staff. These have a very high fail rate because they do not work the way the human brain functions under stress. As Dr. Gary Klien points out, extensive research by the U.S. military demonstrated the human brain can often perform faster than a software system for pattern matching and recognition and life-or-death decision making.
  • One-page or two-page crisis plan components. These also have a high fail rate because they do not provide an adequate base of experience for life and death decision making.
  • Attempting to use one plan component for a wide variety of school staff. This is because a principal, teacher, custodian and food service worker all perform different action steps in an emergency.
Success strategies that are based on research, evaluation and assessment include the following.
  • Role-specific crisis plan components tailored to teachers, administrators, custodians, food service employees, school bus drivers, etc.
  • Staff development approaches that emphasize empowerment of employees to take immediate lifesaving action.
  • Drills designed to require all staff to prepared to make life-or-death decisions.
  • Regular use of mental simulation — activities that help staff see the crisis, simulate the actions they would take in the first 30 seconds and succeed in their resolution of the crisis.
  • Training and practice in controlled breathing techniques that have been proven to lower heart rate and improve the ability to perform mentally under extreme stress.
Granting and instilling permission to live for staff faced with an immediate life-or-death crisis situation is relatively easy compared with many things that schools currently do to prepare for crisis situations. It also happens to be a life-or-death matter. 

Michael Dorn has been a full-time school safety practitioner for more than 30 years. His work has taken him to Mexico, Central America, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. The author of 25 books on school safety, Dorn has trained more than 2,000 people in conducting school safety assessments and has helped establish four statewide school safety assessment training projects. He welcomes reader questions and comments at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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