Campus Risks – The Ones You Don’t See Coming

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When you think of ‘school safety preparedness,’ what comes to mind? Over the past year, in webinars and articles, we have discussed:

  • Active shooter preparednessMyers Middle School
  • Preventing weapons from entering the facility
  • Preparing for a communicable illness outbreak
  • Natural disaster preparedness
    • Tornadoes, fire, earthquakes, etc.

While we stress preparedness for these high-profile events, we must also stay focused on those internal to our schools and campuses; failures related to the “plant” – the heart of functional systems that are structural and mechanical operations. A school in Savannah, Georgia faced this problem last week.

Meyers Middle School sent nearly 40 students and staff to the hospital last week and evacuated the building. According to Savannah Fire, the school was cleared after a Freon leak.

Students in a classroom located by the gym began complaining of chest pain, headaches and issues breathing. According to Kurt Hetager, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System spokesperson, “less than 10 students reported headaches, stomach illness and respiratory problems.” The 36 students and one assistant principal, however, were affected and treated at area hospitals.

Firefighters determined the air conditioning system was leaking Freon – which likely caused the symptoms students were experiencing.

This is especially concerning given the recent outbreak of Legionnaires disease we saw in New York related to urban cooling Towers.

Lack of Communication

A grandmother of a Meyer’s student (who was taken to the hospital via ambulance) expressed the lack of communication from the school. “I mean, a lot of these parents are feeling the same way. They’re like, ‘Nobody told us, what’s going on?’” Several parents were frustrated with the communication efforts of the school. Most heard of the incident first from their children, prior to a school emergency notification. The incident response phase was not up to par in the situation.freon leak

Incident Response phase has been defined as the “golden minutes” to “golden hour” period; the time you have to respond promptly, accurately and effectively in order to correct, contain or mitigate the risks of the situation.

Firestorm President, Jim Satterfield, has said multiple times, the terms “golden minutes” or “golden hour” are no longer applicable to today’s technological era. Today we have Golden Seconds.

Crisis Today = “Golden Seconds” – BEFORE NOW™.

News travels at in incredibly fast speed with the use of smartphones, social media, texting, etc.

The issue with what happened at Meyers Middle School is two-fold.

First – the crisis at hand is one that has the potential to be overlooked. A Freon leak is unconventional, however, every school is susceptible to a Freon, gas or other type of mechanical failure.

Never, under any circumstance, let your thought process be driven by the thought “this will never happen here.” Your school, organization or business can and will experience a crisis. It is not a matter of if, but rather when.

The second issue that occurred at Meyers Middle School was the lack of communication. Don’t let your first crisis (in this case, the Freon leak) spiral into a second, much larger crisis. The lack of communication, or spread of misinformation can be deadly to a reputation.

The rate at which news travels is yet another reason schools (and organizations) MUST: predict what crises could arise, create a plan of action for when a crisis occurs, so everyone can perform and mitigate the repercussions.

In short, you must PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.®

Why Communicate?

Until you’ve asked “why” five times, you are not going to fully understand “why” you must communicate in a certain way that helps your specific school or organization. The objective is to understand and establish the ‘Why’ of all communications. The value of any communication must be weighed against the potential exposure or liability created by these communications. When a crisis occurs, stop and figure out what will happen if you speak [or remain silent] on the subject. Will an additional door be opened that will lead to additional comments, or potentially another crisis?

Crisis Communications Approach
3 Ps

  • Who is the audience?
    • Are you speaking to a board member or the public? That will determine how to construct a message.
  • Always focus on the audience and their concerns during a crisis.
  • We all act differently when we receive news via text, email and phone call. Sharing news to your audience at the right time and in the right way becomes very critical.
    • Failure to plan can result in additional crises.
  • Your audience will not be able to understand a 15 or 20 point message.
    • Deliver one message at a time.


  • Factually assess the situation and determine whether a communications response is warranted at this time or ever.
  • Implement immediate actions to:
    • Identify key audiences;October 2015 Cover
    • Align message maps (prewritten messages) to key audiences;
    • Monitor facts about the events (NOTE: much of what is learned initially in a crisis can be wrong);
    • Communicate to stakeholders, as required;
    • Minimize rumors;
    • Conduct debriefs, as needed;
    • Ask for assistance if needed and
    • Verify that your messages support your brand position.
  • Ensure the people affected (as well as employees) by the crisis learn of updates through you, instead of via the media through leaked information.

Can you predict your next crisis? The answer is yes. Creating a detailed, up-to-date crisis plan is essential to survival before, during and after a crisis. The plan should include the ‘common’ crises (natural disasters, school violence, etc.), but should not be absent of what to do during a communicable illness outbreak, structural disaster or a harmful leak. Think of every possible situation that can arise, because no one is ever immune to a crisis. Always remember: It’s not about if a crisis will occur, but rather when a crisis will occur.

Developing or updating a crisis plan can be daunting. Where do you start? How do you know if what you’re creating fits the industry best practices? What if your crisis manager has never handled a crisis before? That’s one of the many reasons Firestorm is here: to help you before you suffer a detrimental crisis and cannot rebound. Contact Firestorm, or download a brief to understand where you need to start your crisis planning.

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