Emergency Preparedness at School

Thoughtful planning and preparation can help ensure the safety of students and staff should and earthquake occur during school hours.

Updated August 15, 2023

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How to prevent, prepare, respond and recover in the face of emergencies and disasters

Natural disasters and other emergencies can happen at any time, and when they happen at school, everyone should be prepared to handle them safely and effectively. Administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students can work together to promote and maintain school-wide safety and minimize the effects of emergencies and other dangerous situations. This guide covers different ways everyone in the school community can prepare for various natural disasters and other emergencies to stay safe.

Is Your School at Risk? A Look at Natural Disasters

Some natural disasters can be predicted, giving schools enough warning to evacuate or take other safety precautions, but others can happen unexpectedly or go through rapid changes that suddenly put a school in danger. The first step schools should take in preparing for these types of emergencies is to assess the natural disaster risks in their areas. The map below can help schools determine their likelihood of being affected by natural disasters like these:

  • Winter storms & extreme cold
  • Extreme heat
  • Wildfires
  • House & building fires
  • Thunderstorms & lightning
  • Landslides & debris flow

Natural Disaster Risk Map


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School Emergency Preparedness:
Natural Disasters & Other Emergencies

Students, faculty and administrators can prepare themselves for emergencies at school in a number of ways, from conducting regular, emergency-specific drills to making sure the building's infrastructure is up to code. When emergencies do happen, schools need to know how to respond appropriately and recover as quickly and effectively as possible.

Earthquakes at School

Many natural disasters can be predicted and tracked, but earthquakes tend to strike without warning. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 17 major earthquakes (7.0+ magnitude) and one great earthquake (8.0+ magnitude) are expected to occur in any given year along with millions of small earthquakes worldwide. While smaller quakes might not have much impact on a school, it's important to take precautionary measures in case a large earthquake happens.

Warnings & Alerts

There aren't any prediction or warning systems in place for earthquakes; however, the U.S.Geological Survey's earthquake map and Global Incident's live earthquakes map provide information about earthquakes soon after they hit, including when and where the earthquake occurred and how large it was. For updates and information in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, schools and parents should have battery-powered radios on hand.

Getting Your School Prepared

Thoughtful planning and preparation can help ensure the safety of students and staff should and earthquake occur during school hours. These tips can aid in the preparation process.

  • Consider the buildings.
    Schools are built to code at the time of their construction, and many older school buildings might not meet earthquake protection standards. Seek out an architect to evaluate the building and point out areas that could be reinforced.
  • Secure furniture.
    Any tall shelving, audio-visual equipment and heavy computer cabinets should be secured to the wall. Try to avoid placing heavy objects on shelves or other surfaces where they might fall during severe shaking.
  • Create a cache of emergency supplies.
    In a serious earthquake, it could be awhile before it's safe for students and staff to leave the building. Have a plan to shelter in place for two or three days, including plenty of emergency food, water and first aid kits.
  • Drop, cover and hold on.
    Make sure students are familiar with safety procedures, like taking cover under their desks until the quake subsides. Have a class discussion on earthquake preparedness at the beginning of each school year.
  • Hold earthquake drills.
    This is necessary to ensure an immediate and proper response. Earthquake drills also help administrators figure out where the process needs to be reevaluated.
  • Practice evacuation plans.
    Aftershocks are very likely. Solid evacuation plans should get students out of the building within minutes and offer a safe meeting place for all classes.
  • Be prepared for search and rescue.
    In addition to earthquake drills and evacuation procedures, staff may need to conduct search and rescues. However, before entering the building, staff should make sure that they aren't going to put themselves in danger. If one or more outer walls or the roof is collapsed, or if the building is leaning, staff should wait for search and rescue professionals.

Earthquake Preparedness Resources

Earthquake Facts and Earthquake Fantasy
This fun read from the USGS addresses the wild myths and solid facts about earthquakes.

Earthquake Preparedness
This primer from the American Red Cross is filled with information on how anyone can protect themselves when the earth begins to shake.

Earthquake Preparedness for Educational Facilities
This in-depth guide can serve as a powerful tool for administrators in creating preparedness programs for schools.

Earthquake Safety at Schools
FEMA offers comprehensive information on how to prepare, handle and recover from an earthquake that strikes a school.

Earthquakes and Schools
This service of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities provides numerous details on earthquakes and preparing for them.

Great ShakeOut
This site helps schools prepare for earthquakes, practice appropriate drills and extend preparedness to families and communities.

This informative website from Michigan Tech offers great teaching points for students who are curious about earthquakes and seismology.

Fires at School

Between 2007 and 2011, fire departments in the U.S. responded to about 5,700 structure fires in educational facilities. Seventy-one percent of those fires were in K-12 schools, and about half of them were intentionally set. The remaining half of fires in schools occur unintentionally from things like malfunctioning heating units or chemicals interacting in a chemistry lab.

Emergency preparation should not be limited to indoor fires. Wildfires can pose real threats to schools, especially those along the West and in rural areas, where dry climates and wind cause fires to move and grow rapidly.

Warnings & Alerts

Schools typically have a strong warning system in place for fires that will set off alarms throughout the building, turn on a sprinkler system and contact emergency services. Anyone on campus can pull manual fire alarms as well. Always be prepared to evacuate the building immediately, even if you can't see or smell the fire.

Wildfires take some time to grow, which can provide ample warning time to get students to safety. However, they have a propensity to shift suddenly, so even a fire that seems far away should be taken seriously and addressed with speed. Schools should take note of fire risk warnings, which are common in areas where wildfires are a threat. In the event of a wildfire, alerts will be sent out through emergency channels, like California's CalFire Incidents page or Utah's FireInfo page. Schools, students and families should find out where to get wildfire alerts in their area before a fire occurs.

Getting Your School Prepared

Whether a fire threat comes from inside or outside the building, student and staff safety is the top priority. Smart planning and preparation for various types of fire threats can help schools prevent fires and, when prevention is not possible, respond to them appropriately.

  • Plan ahead
    Make sure a sound evacuation and response plan is in place before school begins. The plan should be understood by everyone involved and straightforward in its implementation.
  • Ensure safety in all areas
    Check to see if all safety recommendations are being followed. This includes having the proper number of sprinklers, fire alarm pulls, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the building.
  • Prominently display school blueprints
    Laminated blueprints displayed in prominent places, such as right inside main doors, can help firefighters navigate the school in an emergency.
  • Provide clear instruction
    Before the first fire drill, make sure all students understand what they must do and why. Go over the rules of evacuation. Go further by practicing “stop, drop and roll.”
  • Practice fire drills
    The Federal government requires drills at least once per month. Help students stay calm by reminding them that it is a drill and that they know what to do.
  • Encourage drills at home
    Remind students that drills should be practiced at home as well. Teaching them the basics of getting low, touching the door handle before opening a door and how to “stop, drop and roll” can help them educate their family members.
  • Follow all wildfire recommendations
    Protect the school by creating a “survivable space” around buildings. Also ensure building materials are fire-retardant, and work with local officials to bring the building up to proper codes.

Fire and Wildfire Preparedness Resources

Campus and Dorm Fire Safety Tips
These lessons from the National Fire Protection Association can help keep college students safe in their dorms.

This comprehensive website is dedicated to education on wildfires, including teaching tools, protective steps and communication resources.

How to Form a School Fire Safety Plan
These instructions and additional resources on fire safety can help teachers and administrators during their fire planning.

Incident Information System
This service of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group provides current information on fire and related incidents throughout the nation.

School Safety Tips
Teachers, staff and students looking for tips on staying safe can find them here through the NFPA.

Wildfires and Schools
The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities offers a comprehensive guide on how to protect a school from wildfires.

Hurricanes at School

Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that bring high winds, flooding rains and storm surges. While they can typically be detected before they reach land, hurricanes can be highly destructive. Schools may be evacuated well in advance of a hurricane strike, but steps can be taken to prepare students, staff and the building itself for smoother recovery.

Warnings & Alerts

Fortunately, storms are always detected well before they reach hurricane status. When the track of the hurricane becomes evident, warnings are issued to the affected areas through radio, television, newspaper and online sources. This allows plenty of time for residents to take appropriate actions. Schools are likely to cancel classes in order to keep students as safe as possible.

Getting Your School Prepared

Schools on or near the coast should help students, parents and faculty prepare for hurricanes. Planning ahead can reduce panic and increase safety during these storms.

  • Talk about hurricanes
    Students might be nervous or scared when confronted with hurricane warnings. Even if the school will be closed during the height of the hurricane, talking to them about what to expect at home will help keep them calmer.
  • Communicate well
    A strong evacuation plan, as well as regular communication with parents, can help ensure that students and their families get out of the hurricane path safely.
  • Have a plan for building protection
    Schools with wide windows are in danger of damage; those in low-lying areas are in danger of flooding or storm surge. Consult a building safety expert to understand the best ways to protect the school.
  • Create an action plan
    When it's clear that a hurricane is imminent, it takes a team effort to protect the buildings. Have a plan that delegates certain tasks to various individuals, such as putting plywood over windows and reinforcing doors.
  • Understand insurance coverage
    School officials should look into their insurance policy to make sure all potential damages from a hurricane are covered. For instance, some policies cover wind damage but do not cover storm surges.
  • Plan for students to help with recovery
    Choose activities that suit the age and grade level, from making thank-you cards for emergency personnel to cleaning debris from the grounds.

Hurricane Preparedness Resources

This resource explains the risks associated with flooding, which often accompanies major hurricanes.

How to Prepare for a Hurricane
FEMA has released an extensive publication covering everything there is to know about hurricane preparation.

Ready.gov provides an extensive walkthrough of hurricane preparation, including an hourly timeline of steps to take before the hurricane arrives.

Hurricane Preparedness
The American Red Cross explains what individuals and families can do to protect themselves before, during and after a hurricane strikes.

National Hurricane Center
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Hurricane Center sets forth a comprehensive outline for preparing to weather a hurricane.

Public Health Emergency – Hurricane Preparedness
The US Department of Health and Human Services covers a wide array of topics and problems likely to be faced by those encountering a hurricane.

Tornadoes at School

Around 1,200 tornadoes occur in the United States every year, ranging from mild to severe. Those who live in areas where tornadoes are common may know a storm is coming just by looking outside: a dark, greenish sky; hail and debris; and loud winds can indicate a tornado strike. However, it is very difficult to predict exactly where a tornado will hit, and once it forms, it moves quickly. Immediate response is necessary to protect everyone in the building when a tornado hits at school.

Warnings & Alerts

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the average lead time for a tornado warning is 13 minutes, but some tornadoes can have little warning at all. Schools should be equipped with weather radios tuned to NOAA stations so faculty can get tornado alerts immediately. Some communities have tornado sirens and may send text messages and emails alerts when a tornado approaches.

Getting Your School Prepared

Students and staff should know exactly what to do and where to go when tornado warnings are broadcast. Here's how schools can prepare for tornadoes.

  • Create a safety plan
    Start by planning out exactly where students should go and what they should do during a tornado. This must be tailored to the building the students are in and how quickly they can be moved to a safe place.
  • Find the safest location
    Move all students to the lowest floor. Avoid any areas with span roofs, such as cafeterias or gyms. Keep away from windows and evacuate students from portable classrooms. Students should crouch low and keep their heads down.
  • Practice makes perfect
    Tornado drills are essential in order to see the traffic flow, find areas big enough to hold all the kids safely and ensure that everyone moves efficiently.
  • Tweak, tweak, tweak
    Watch the drill in progress, and make notes on what needs to be changed. When those changes are made, ensure every person involved in the drill knows the new protocol.
  • Stay informed
    The school should always be alert for severe weather warnings. Everyone in the office should be ready to act when a warning is issued. Have a strong alert system to keep teachers informed as well.
  • Plan for the aftermath
    If the tornado does hit the school, stay calm and swing into action. Help injured students, move everyone away from damaged areas and activate parent information lines.

Tornado Preparedness Resources

Prepare for a Tornado
Weather Underground is dedicated to all things weather, including how to prepare for severe weather events.

National Disasters and Severe Weather – Tornadoes
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on what to do before, during and after a tornado.

Severe Weather 101 – Tornado Basics
The National Severe Storms Laboratory provides a great overview about the science of tornadoes.

From basic explanations to safety checklists, the Red Cross provides a wealth of information.

Ready.gov provides information on how to prepare for tornadoes, explains terminology and lists interesting facts about tornadoes.

Tornado Protection
FEMA's detailed and comprehensive booklet about tornadoes is very helpful for the school setting.

Terrorist Threats & Active Shooter Events (ASEs) at School

Between 2013 and 2015, there were 160 school shootings in 38 states. Nearly 53 percent happened at K-12 schools, while 47 percent occurred on college campuses. While these situations can seem to come out of nowhere, schools can increase prevention measures and better prepare students, staff and families in the event of a terrorist or active shooter threat.

Warnings & Alerts

At the time of the event, school shootings can seem random and unprompted. However, after some investigation, missed warning signs tend to surface. Schools can educate teachers and students about different warning signs that could lead to an ASE and improve measures to address them. For instance, schools might increase counseling services for all students and their families, paying special attention to students who display violent outbursts, have difficult or violent home lives, are bullied or struggle to develop positive relationships with peers. Helping students develop and maintain good mental health and a sense of self-worth along with looking for warning signs and addressing them before a problem occurs can help ensure that schools remains a safe space for students.

If a school is threatened by terrorist activity or armed persons near campus, police and administrators typically work together to keep each other informed and ensure the safety of people in the building.

Getting Your School Prepared

Taking steps to prepare the building as well as those inside it can help schools stay safe and respond appropriately to active shooter events and terrorist threats.

  • Prepare the building
    Quick-lock doors, panic buttons and even discreet metal detectors are good options to deal with armed intruders. Security cameras outside the building can help spot problems before they breach the protective walls.
  • Teach alertness
    “If you see something, say something.” Any student who notices something odd or frightening should immediately tell the teachers or administrators.
  • Prepare for evacuation and lockdown
    Create a plan that looks at various ways to get students out of the building at a moment's notice. This should have alternate routes, as the usual exit might be too dangerous to use. If evacuating is too risky, students will need to shelter in place.
  • Have regular drills
    Conducting drills for all types and severities of emergency lockdown situations, not just the most likely or the most extreme, can increase success rates and safety if an actual threat occurs.
  • Use strong communication
    In addition to sounding the immediate alarm when a threat occurs, be ready to communicate with concerned parents. A good alert system can keep them updated and away from danger.

Terrorist Threat & Active Shooter Event Preparedness Resources

Campus Safety
This is an online magazine that addresses security issues for organizations, such as schools, hospitals and businesses.

Campus Safety Toolkit
Offered by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the toolkit covers a diverse array of public threats, such as stalking, bomb threats and school-related crime.

Campus Security
The US Department of Education offers various articles and publications for maintaining campus safety.

Department of Homeland Security
DHS devotes a significant section of its website to discussing terrorism prevention and what citizens can do to stay safe.

The National Center for Campus Public Safety
The NCCPS website provides a variety of resources, including an extensive library on campus safety topics.

Terrorism Response Protocols
While technically tailored to Willamette University, the advice and steps provided to students in how to react to a potential terror attack are helpful to everyone.

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College Students:
How to Be Prepared When Emergency Strikes

The increased independence that comes with being in college also comes with more responsibility, especially when it comes to emergency preparedness. While college dorms do conduct emergency drills and provide information on what to do during natural disasters and campus threats, students need to make sure they also know what to do if emergencies happen while they are in class, away from their dorms or living off campus. Reading up on school emergency procedures, making sure that emergency supplies are available, knowing the campus layout and getting familiar with school resources, like campus police, resident assistants and health services can help college students be safe and prepared in emergency situations.

Know Your Emergency Contacts

Emergency contact information allows students and emergency responders to notify important individuals and loved ones in the event of an emergency. Students can store their emergency contacts in their phones or write them down, but it's a good idea to have the most important ones memorized. Consider including these:

  • The local off-campus police department (emergency and non-emergency numbers)
  • The on-campus police department (emergency and non-emergency numbers)
  • Parents
  • Any siblings or other family members
  • The school emergency department or office
  • Roommate(s)
  • Spouse or significant others

Know Your School's Emergency & Disaster Plans

Every school has an emergency and disaster plan. If students aren't informed during orientation, they can ask for details from the campus safety office. Pay special attention to these aspects of the plan:

  • The alert system and how it contacts students
  • Various campus-wide alarms or alerts and what they all mean
  • Assembly points for evacuations
  • The best areas to shelter in place
  • How to reach campus security in the event of an emergency

Keep an Emergency Kit in Your Dorm, House or Apartment

Schools are generally prepared to help students when disasters hit, but it's still a good idea for students to be equipped with emergency kits. When building their kits, students should include these items:

  • Flashlight
  • A one-week supply of prescription medications
  • Several gallons of water – about one gallon of water per person per day.
  • Emergency or ready to eat meals
  • Extra batteries for electronic devices
  • Portable cell phone charger
  • Personal hygiene & sanitation products
  • First aid kit
  • Battery or hand-crank weather radio
  • Emergency whistle
  • Cash
  • Emergency blanket
  • Extra set of clothes
  • List of important phone numbers

Grab-n-Go Emergency Kits for Your Home, School or Vehicle

Sometimes known as bug-out-bags, emergency kits have everything students need get through an emergency. Making your own is cheaper and tailored to you, but also takes some serious time and planning for prepare. Those who want the basics can explore these options.

Kit NameDescription
kit-iconBug out Bag Complete Emergency KitThis high-quality, full-sized emergency kit includes tools and equipment for many types of emergencies.
kit-iconCoghlan's Survival KitA good, affordable, small and easy to carry survival kit.
kit-iconEmergency Auto KitThis grab-n-go bag is intended for those who may be driving when an emergency strikes, such as getting stranded with their car.
kit-iconEssentials I Person 72 Hour KitA moderately sized grab-n-go pack that is intended to help one person survive for three days.
kit-iconFlexPack Emergency KitOne of the more deluxe kits available, this allows users to customize the bag to their needs.
kit-iconSOL Scout Survival KitOne of the cheaper and smaller options for a grab-n-go emergency kit, for those who have little space or financial resources.

Advice from the Expert: What Can Schools Be Doing Better?

Jason Russell

What is the biggest hurdle to emergency preparedness in schools today?

The biggest hurdle in emergency preparedness is understanding the importance and need for training. In emergencies people don't rise to the occasion, they sink to the level of their training. Training is the most important piece of the emergency preparedness puzzle, so schools should focus more of their safety budgets on training staff.

What can school administrators do to make sure that campus structures are built for emergencies?

Many schools, universities etc. are focusing much of their security and emergency budgets on physical security features. Administrators should seek expertise in the design phase of the process. Often the architects designing schools have little to no experience with security. When the process is done the schools are left with security features they have not been properly trained to use. In addition, emergency plans must be examined and adjusted to ensure they match the new school features.

What can parents do to make things easier for emergency personnel when there is a disaster affecting their child's school?

Parents' natural reaction to respond directly to the school occurs because they have not been given information on where they should respond to be reunited with their children. It is crucial for schools to not only identify suitable relocation sites but also to identify staging areas at each relocation sites. These staging areas can be used by parents to gather prior to reunification.

Additional Emergency Preparation Resources

General Pet Care - Disaster Preparedness
The ASPCA offers tips to pet owners on how to keep their pets safe in times of emergency.

Make a Plan
Ready.gov has a wealth of information for anyone who is ready to make an emergency and disaster plan.

NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards
This is a radio broadcast that alerts to severe weather, natural or environmental disasters, public safety and anything else that affects the general population.

Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center provides various resources to prepare emergency plans.

What's Happening in Your State?
This map hosted by Ready.gov details the most common natural disasters for a given state, as well as preparation tips for each.

Zombie Preparedness
The CDC takes advantage of the popularity of the zombie apocalypse genre to raise awareness and educate about disaster prep.

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