The Importance of Crisis Management Teams

Summer 2020

By Alex Magay

image-2020-03-11-12-01-35-PM-(1).jpgIn the unpredictable world we live in, the one thing we can be sure of is that things do not always go as planned. We are reminded daily that the natural world rarely behaves as expected. Earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, floods, and other calamities seem to occur more frequently than ever before. While the climate change debate rages on, recent headlines warned us of the coronavirus that forced governments, businesses, and educational institutions to react quickly to the global crisis.
 
And at the same time, violence in schools continues to rise, with more than 25 shootings in 2019, according to Education Week’s school shootings data tracker. These horrific events have forced our educational institutions to incorporate new kinds of emergency training for students and staff into the everyday curriculum.
 
Crisis management is no longer just a series of tools and tactics deployed to help stem PR blunders or a “bad press” problem. The landscape is much broader, and schools must monitor—and be ready for—a wide range of situations. When external factors for which we have no control do occur and land with little warning on our campus doorstep, we have to be ready. This sounds like a tall order—how to prepare for the unknown?—but it is possible.
 
It’s not enough to have a crisis plan or handbook or just one person’s perspective when planning for an emergency within a large, complex organization like an independent school. When a crisis plan is created without teamwork, deploying even the most basic management tools will fail. Being fully prepared for a crisis involves getting multiple perspectives from campus leaders, developing a plan, clearly communicating that plan to your community, having the necessary equipment, and making sound decisions when a crisis occurs. A functioning crisis team that meets regularly and consistently throughout the school year, crisis or not, is critical.

Leading the Charge

In 1998, I started my career in education as a teacher, basketball coach, and dorm parent at The Winchendon School (MA). During that time, I was also a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard and served as my unit’s safety manager and adviser to the unit commander on all risk management and safety-related matters. After a few years of doing double duty, I added more to my school plate, including several administrative responsibilities, one of which was serving as an administrator on duty (AOD) in charge of campus one day a week and one weekend a month, and I went back to school for a master’s degree in educational administration.
 
Not long after I finished my master’s program, the new head of school, John Kerney, arrived at Winchendon in 2008. In one of our first conversations, he asked me about my Air National Guard experience and talked about his time in the highly competitive corporate sector and as an administrator at another boarding school. He shared how his prior experience had instilled in him the need to prepare for unexpected emergencies and crisis events. We agreed that an institutionwide commitment to crisis management should be a high priority and that together we should explore new ways to put our combined process knowledge into action.
 
The day after our first official conversation, he offered me a new position as dean of community life, overseeing student activities, special event planning, community service, community partnerships, environmental sustainability, and campus safety. I was also tasked with creating a crisis management team. It was a bit daunting, but I was excited to take the lead on this new initiative for our school.
 
I started by reviewing the crisis management plan, which at the time lacked any significant policies and procedures. The existing crisis handbook had been developed years before by the school’s insurance company. It was generic at best and did not speak to the school’s mission and values. It had never been reviewed by an internal committee and lacked any sense of having been developed with multiple perspectives. 
 
I reached out to peers at other boarding schools in our region to learn about their policies and procedures, reviewed college and university emergency plans, and conducted extensive research online. Based on the information I gathered and my Air National Guard safety manager experience, I created a shell of a crisis handbook that covered protocols for the most likely possible threats.

Team Building

The next step was to assemble a crisis management team. I thought carefully about who would be able to provide valuable leadership when planning for and managing the many layers of a crisis. I considered who had knowledge about and could provide expertise in all major areas of the school and who demonstrated the ability to analyze situations, identify problems, and offer useful feedback in stressful situations. The resulting list of potential crisis team members included the head of school, dean of students, AODs, and the directors of maintenance, food services, health services, athletics, development, human resources, and the business office.
 
Toward the end of the summer, a month and a half before our senior staff retreat, I emailed these potential team members to ask them to join the group, explaining the team’s mission and when and how often we would meet (biweekly initially, then monthly after the handbook was completed). I informally spoke to each member to give them a brief understanding of what I hoped to accomplish and allow them to ask me questions individually. Everyone accepted the invitation, and the team met once to skim the handbook and share initial observations and feedback before our staff orientation presentation. I made the first of many rounds of edits based on the team’s feedback. During our senior staff retreat, we announced the formation of the team and gave a brief overview of the work we planned to accomplish; during the staff orientation the following week, I presented the same overview, introduced team members to the rest of the staff, and shared a handout summarizing the information presented.  
 
Initially, a few skeptical administrators questioned why we needed a crisis team when we’d never had one before. It’s not uncommon for people to question new initiatives that require time and attention––change can be challenging. We countered this feedback with positive reinforcement about the importance of keeping our students and staff safe and communicated that their expertise and insight was important.

The Team’s Work

We started with a schedule to meet twice a month to analyze each scenario in the draft handbook step-by-step. The handbook broke down every crisis imaginable on a boarding school campus including fires, blizzards, tornados, power outages, missing students, and self-harm situations, to name a few. Each scenario included planned action steps. We used proven management tools such as the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle, which involves systematically testing possible solutions and assessing the results. 
 
The draft handbook we were reviewing also included a communication plan that detailed how we would communicate important information with everyone on campus as well as parents nearby, in New England, across the country, and around the world. These templates provided a guide that could be used in any scenario to direct callers—whether a parent or guardian, citizen of the town, board member, or member of the press—to appropriate sources for information. The plan also identified who was authorized to speak to the press on behalf of the school and when, as well as what to say if you were not approved as a spokesperson but asked to comment on a crisis. The communication plan included the locations of three-ring binders with contact information for every staff member and parent that we could use in case our computer system went down; an inventory of emergency supplies, including flashlights, two-way radios, batteries, and water; and the exact location where the supplies were stored.
 
After several revisions over a four-month period, the team arrived at its first official book of policies and procedures. Sign-offs were essential, and we held meetings with police and fire officials to review the handbook and get their feedback. We discussed their suggestions at our next team meeting and incorporated several of their ideas into our manual. We also included school leadership—faculty, department chairs, and governing boards—in the approval process. And we shared both print and electronic copies with the entire community. In each instance, we requested more feedback, comments, and suggestions. It was, as it should be, a continuous cycle of improvements.  

Put to the Test

It would not be long before our team would be tested. The December 2008 Northeastern ice storm was one of the worst winter events in recorded history; ice accumulation up to 1.5 inches on power lines and trees resulted in widespread power outages affecting more than 500,000 people.
 
When the weather reports started to surface, I met with that day’s AOD and the head of school to discuss contingency plans and to prepare for the worst-case scenario. By the time the storm became active at 11 p.m., a substantial layer of snow and ice already covered the trees and the grounds. The next morning, at 4:30 a.m., the power had gone out on campus, and we began to deploy our training and our plan.
 
The crisis team discussed how long we thought the power could be out on campus, how much water and food we had, and how to occupy 240 teenagers for an extended period without power. In a long-lasting storm, we knew that more and more people from our region would be looking for lodging. We quickly reserved charter buses and 70 rooms at a hotel an hour away. 
 
As we looked out the windows at daybreak, we all saw trees, branches, and utility poles covering the streets. Many of the power lines in the road were producing sparks and fumes of smoke blocking all campus access. Before we left our command center, we met with each dorm parent and asked them to take attendance, awaken students, and instruct them to pack bags for two nights and meet in the cafeteria at 9 a.m.
 
The maintenance department borrowed several portable generators from our local hardware store to connect to the cafeteria. Faculty helped make breakfast, as many of the kitchen staff were unable to make it in. After breakfast, we led our students down the middle of the snow and ice-covered fairway to the awaiting buses. The students were awestruck at the destruction around them. We went to Natick, Massachusetts, for two nights before returning to Winchendon after power had been restored.
 
As we returned to campus, I remember feeling proud of my school, our students, the administration, and the crisis team for working through such a challenging emergency with relative ease. Because we had a crisis team and good leadership in place, were organized, and had a plan ahead of time, we only had to make a few minor adjustments based on the variables of our unique situation.

The Beat Goes On

A week after the ice storm, after routines had mostly returned to normal, the crisis team met to discuss the event. We documented what went well and identified opportunities for improvement. Team members shared positive feedback and agreed with our decision to move students to the hotel. There were no significant recommendations to change our handbook. We began discussions in our meeting that led to the purchase of a permanent generator that was later installed on a poured concrete slab next to our main building and dining hall. The generator has come in handy numerous times since it was installed, and our committee paved the way for this to happen.
 
We agreed to review the handbook each year and continue to meet regularly to discuss new concerns, evaluate new crisis technology, and analyze crisis management case studies from other schools. In our last meeting of the 2008–2009 school year, we agreed to review the handbook during summer break. The committee returned in the fall to address the feedback and converted the handbook into a better-organized laminated book-sized flipchart that would allow users to more quickly look up any protocol. The plan is a living document that will be updated and adjusted as things change over time.
 
The core of the crisis team remains intact to this day. There were some administrative additions and turnover over the years, but the new members brought new perspective and fresh ideas. We also added an information technology director to the team, realizing that keeping servers up, minimizing downtime, providing redundancy, and having adequate bandwidth is essential. We created a separate IT crisis handbook, including passwords and procedures to perform critical tasks when needed, that a few key people had access to.
 
In the spring of 2009, that same crisis team came together again as we prepared for the H1N1 virus. Those working at international boarding schools at the time might remember the concern about international students not being able to return home if borders were closed due to the epidemic. The team also recommended that we adopt ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate) protocols for dangerous intruder scenarios, and under the supervision of our team, Winchendon became one of the first boarding schools in New England to do so. The team researched the program, planned the rollout to community members, and developed the training schedule.

Continuous Preparation

In 2020, we know much more about dealing with school emergencies from the many high-profile cases across the country. This increased visibility and open dialogue also means that the expectations are higher, and parents expect schools to have a plan in place that will prepare them for the significant curve balls that are bound to come our way.
 
If you already have a crisis team, you’re off to a great start. Stay active and connect regularly with peer schools to swap plans and emergency guidelines to see how you might improve your school's plan and help your peer schools too. If you don't have an active crisis team, start one as soon as possible, and remember that building your program is a gradual process that will not all happen overnight. This is an endeavor that can potentially save lives and is worth every minute invested in the program.
 

Key Players

In times of crisis, you’ll want these leaders on your team, and here’s why.
 
Head of school: Their participation sends a message that the crisis team is important. Also, they are the ones who will have to answer the difficult questions, and if they are on the committee, they will have firsthand information.
 
Director of maintenance: They have the keys to every door, know where the shut-off valves are, are in charge of snow removal, usually have a good relationship with the fire department, and know how to fix stuff.
 
Director of food services: They know how much food you have on hand and how many days you can go if a delivery cannot make it to campus. They know how to nourish your community in emergency situations.
 
Director of health services: They are experts at providing medical care, preventing the spread of viruses, and making sure students receive their medication on time.
 
Dean of students: They are experts at managing students, are accountable for attendance, and have a lot of practice communicating with parents. 
 
Athletic director (AD): Athletic facilities are often used as rally points for boarding communities to gather, take attendance, and communicate important information. Nobody knows the gym and rink like your athletic director. Your AD will also be very comfortable organizing adults and students to achieve common goals.
  
Administrators on duty: They know the campus and your students best, and they are resourceful and used to solving problems on campus and in the dorms.
 
Director of human resources: The most significant resource during a crisis is your staff—who better to have on your team than an expert on human resources?
 
Director of finance: They are experts on available campus resources because they sign every purchase order, and they will understand the need to purchase new safety equipment if they are part of the team.

Director of IT: They will ensure that you stay connected and minimize Wi-Fi downtime, and that you have the best information available about one of your most valuable assets during a crisis.
Author
Alex Magay

Alex Magay is currently the director of development at Learning Prep School in West Newton, Massachusetts. He served in several capacities in his 20 years at The Winchendon School in Winchendon, Massachusetts.