Communication, Emergency, Emergency Management, Emergency Management Communication, Emergency Preparedness, Florida, Gulf Coast, Human resources, Hurricane Isaac, Key Words, Key Words at Key Times, Parent Relationships, Parent Satisfaction, Personal Service, School Districts, Schools, Superintendent
Phone trees were once a standard mode of “emergency” communication for students (e.g., “No practice today”) and teachers (e.g., “No school today”). Today, options for emergency communication move far beyond the phone tree as do the reasons for using such communication; moreover, the message is delivered instantaneously to any number of individuals rather than just one at a time.
School district leaders in communities across the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana recently put their emergency management communication plans into action as tracking models for Hurricane Isaac provided no certainty about category (strength), day, or location for landfall. There is a need for leaders to consider much more than the impact of the weather on potential school closures for emergency communication, for example leaders must consider:
- Need for some school buildings to be used as temporary shelters within their communities.
- Number of students dependent on school transportation.
- Voluntary and/or mandatory evacuation orders.
- Timeline for storm effects both pre- and post- landfall.
- Alternative communications if cell and/or Internet service is lost.
- Damage to infrastructure and/or utilities.
- Message(s) for each stakeholder groups (e.g., students/parents, employees, community).
Message to Parents. Key words are critical in any emergency communication that we make as leaders, but especially important to our message to parents (see blog mentioning personal service for more information). The message and key words to parents is that “we care about your child and your child’s safety first and foremost.” Below is the text from a sample proactive letter1 home with students provided 4-5 days prior to Isaac’s projected landfall.
The [School District or School] is monitoring weather conditions. At the time of dismissal, a determination had not been made regarding school next week. Updates will be available from the District website (add URL), District information line (add Phone Number), WUWF (88.1 FM), WEAR (Channel 3), and the school’s parent portal-notification system. Information is also available at the Emergency Management website (add URL) where press conferences are streamed live every 4 hours and information updated.
The safety of your child and all children is our number one concern.
A decision to close schools was made 2 days prior to landfall. This is a sample public service announcement2:
The Superintendent has made the decision to close the School District on Monday, August 27, 2012, and Tuesday, August 28, 2012.
The [County] Emergency Operations Center has informed the Superintendent of the need to open Hurricane Shelters on Monday morning. Because our community relies heavily on the use of our schools for evacuation shelters, it is imperative that schools are made available during the evacuation order. This decision allows parents, employees and the community adequate time to prepare and evacuate as appropriate.
All students should not report to work/school on Monday and Tuesday and await further instructions. All extra-curricular activities scheduled for Monday and Tuesday have been canceled. For recorded up-to-date information, please call (Add Phone Number).
Message to District Employees. The message to employees is especially critical given that they must prepare their personal homes and supplies in addition to taking appropriate preparations for their classrooms or schools or facilities or equipment. Consider the following examples across the timeline of storm impact:
[4-5 Days Prior3] I want to assure each of you that we are actively monitoring Tropical Storm Isaac, which at this time is anticipated to make landfall possibly as a Category 1 Hurricane late Tuesday evening / early Wednesday morning somewhere between New Orleans and the Florida panhandle. At this time reports vary and the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) has had “a tough time projecting the exact track and long-term intensity of the large and poorly organized storm.” So, at least for now, please do not let this distract us from our work. As many of you know, these storms can and will be unpredictable over the next few days. We want to be aware and cautious but also continue to be productive.
For now, be advised that we are planning to open for business as usual on Monday. The Safety Team has connected with Safety Leads and Back-up Safety Leads to ensure each [school] has someone on point should the need arise (list below for awareness). I encourage [you] to spend the weekend getting your personal homes and supplies in order. In the event anything changes and we need to take more immediate precautions, we will let you know. In fact, if over the weekend there is a change in events and the storm gathers speed and begins to approach earlier than expected, remember that we have an Emergency Contact number (add Phone Number) where you can receive updated information. We will also share updates as appropriate by email. At least for now, we do not anticipate any action will be required until Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.
[2-3 Days Prior2] Only administrative and maintenance personnel are to report to work on Monday, August 27, 2012. Other essential personnel as notified by their supervisor will report to work on Monday to assist with pre-storm preparation.
[Day of Landfall2] Hurricane Isaac. The county remains under a tropical storm warning. The warning is not expected to be removed until sometime on Wednesday, August 29, 2012. The Superintendent has made the decision to close the School District on Wednesday, August 29, 2012. This decision is based on the remaining potential for elevated winds during the morning and protecting students from the hazardous weather. School is expected to reopen on Thursday, August 30, 2012 for all students and staff. For recorded up-to-date information, please call (add Phone Number).
[1 Day Post2] Schools to Resume Operations following Hurricane Isaac. With the closing of the evacuation shelters and the improvement of weather conditions, the Superintendent has made the decision to fully resume all operations with the School District on Thursday, August 30, 2012. All students and staff are to report to school/work tomorrow. All outdoor activities may resume this afternoon, August 29, 2012, at the discretion of the principal. For recorded up-to-date information, please call (add Phone Number).
In Results that Last Studer shares, “The right words spoken by the right people at the right times can lift up communities… So it shouldn’t surprise you that carefully chosen words, offered… at critical points…, can help you build a culture of service and operational excellence” (p. 282). Communicating a message that delivers emergency and closure information as well as the “why” for the decision being made can reduce anxiety for students, parents, and employees, and let them know that their safety and security is the most important factor in decision-making.
Focus on Increasing Participation to Enjoy Increased Satisfaction (Part 1 of 2). What’s Right in Education blog on August 15, 2012. Available online.
1 Sample communication adapted from a private school in Florida.
2 Sample communication of a school district in Florida.
3 Sample communication adapted from a corporation in Florida.
Studer, Q. (2008). Results that Last: Behaviors that will take your Company to the Top. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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