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Preparing for Crisis With a Tabletop Drill

Tuesday, January 8, 2019  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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One of the best ways to improve and demonstrate safety preparation is through tabletop safety drills. During tabletop exercises, school leadership teams work through their response to a sample crisis. This allows for a full accounting of where your school is regarding emergency response management, as well as identifying areas that need attention and improvement. Here’s a “how-to” on running a successful tabletop exercise. 

Before the Exercise

The first task is to choose an appropriate scenario. It should be relevant to your school’s needs and as specific as possible. If it’s an earthquake, how strong is it? What is the weather like outside? When does the ground start shaking and when does it stop? What day of the week is it? These details will inform every aspect of how the scenario plays out, from the resources available to your school to how large of a response is necessary. Don’t be afraid to pick something challenging. This is the time to work through that disaster scenario that keeps you up at night.

Everyone participating in a scenario should think about:

  • Defining the first steps in a crisis.
  • As the scenario unfolds, how to utilize the crisis team through effective communication.
  • The resources they need and the resources that are available.
  • Training needs for staff/faculty.
  • Response areas that need improvement. 

Providing guidelines like these before a tabletop scenario allows the time during and after the tabletop to be centered around the key mission of all of this – how can school leaders best protect our community and our students?

During the Exercise

Once the outlines are established, the scenario can commence. It is important that everyone participating does so in the same way they would if the situation were really happening. Once the exercise begins, start working through the response. As you break up the response chronologically, members of the leadership team should be able to answer these four questions as they relate to the task at hand:

  • What are my responsibilities?
  • Who do I need to communicate to/with?
  • Who do I need communication from?
  • What are the specificactions I need to take?

Scenario Begins: These first moments of an emergency will be critical. If the scenario calls for it, swift evacuation and attendance-taking is the key goal. If this is a lockdown scenario, think through how to initiate lockdown as quickly as possible. 

Leadership Team Communication: The school leadership team must be in contact with one another immediately. The more quickly team members are in communication and can assemble, the faster we can begin coordinating our response. Think through the obstacles that could keep the team from gathering quickly.

Communication with Faculty, Staff, Students, and the Community: Generally speaking, your school will need to send a message that provides details about the event occurring. Depending on your scenario, multiple types of communications may need to go out. 

If the event is a natural disaster, the leadership team’s first priority is likely internal communications to faculty and staff about the immediate next steps in your school’s response, like search and rescue or first aid efforts. Of course, if that’s the case, your leadership team needs to think through a whole host of additional items, like what those teams look like, who calls them into action, and the actions they will be asked to perform. 

If working through a lockdown scenario, what does the communication to the community need to say? What do parents or guardians need to know? For example, they need to know whether to stay away from campus or not. 

Student Care and Dismissal: Whether students are on lockdown in classrooms or assembled in a larger gathering, think through the reality of hundreds of students with nothing to do. They’ll need activities, food, water, supervision, and more to get through it. 

And, although it means the event is coming to an end, the reunification of students and parents is another complex element that must be considered in your tabletop. A swarm of anxious parents descending on your campus would be a logistical issue in the best of times. 

Is this starting to feel somewhat overwhelming? Remember to keep the initial objectives of the tabletop in mind. The goal through all of this is to identify where additional resources and training need to be directed. 

After the Exercise

No two schools are the same. There is no “one size fits all” solution to school safety. One of the greatest things about a tabletop exercise is that it brings a team into the reality of how YOUR school will respond in an emergency. Does everyone on your leadership team feel like they know their responsibilities throughout an emergency? Do they have the resources and training they need, or a plan to get them? 

Expect to leave a tabletop scenario with a list of action items. That list’s length will vary, but don’t be discouraged if it stretches to the floor. Safety starts with confidence, and the best way to instill confidence? Practice, practice, practice.

Here are two sample tabletop presentations:


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