September/October 2001

Drop, Cover, and Hold: How a Moderate Earthquake-hazard State Implemented Earthquake Preparedness in Schools

Drop, cover, and hold drills are an easy sell in high earthquake-hazard areas such as California and the Pacific Northwest. School administrators and staff have few problems dedicating time and resources preparing for earthquakes because everyone understands that earthquakes are a real and daily threat. But how does a state with moderate earthquake hazard get schools to start preparing for the next "big one" without sounding like Chicken Little?

In 1990 the New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management (NHOEM) joined the other New England states in becoming part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP). We set about learning all we could about earthquakes. We studied the science, history, impact on buildings and the infrastructure, and how to mitigate and prepare for them, and, probably most importantly, convinced ourselves that earthquakes do pose a major risk to our own states and to New England as a region. We were greatly aided in this process by the staff of the New England Seismic Network, the New England States Earthquake Consortium, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Once the earthquake hazards and risks to our area were understood, we set out to accomplish as many of the goals set forth by NEHRP as possible. I believe most of us slowly came to the realization that nothing could be done if people weren't convinced of the risk. At NHOEM we focused part of our attention on an outreach program to educate the public and key professionals such as emergency responders, engineers, building code officials, and educators. We joined with the NH Association of Broadcasters to reach the general public with earthquake public service announcements broadcast on all New Hampshire radio stations.

One of the goals of NEHRP is to get earthquake planning and drills included in school emergency response plans. This proved to be impossible. Not only were earthquakes not included in school emergency plans, none of the schools contacted had any emergency plans at all. This fact was, and is, of great concern to NHOEM. It was obvious that more effort was needed to get schools to take emergency planning seriously and to aid them in the development of emergency response plans.

Rather than focus on just the earthquake threat, we conducted an overall hazard analysis. The results showed that New Hampshire is vulnerable to all technological and natural hazards except for one-the state has no active volcanoes. We found that all natural hazards, like earthquakes, can cause considerable damage but occur infrequently-so infrequently, in fact, that people forget they can happen here or how destructive they can be.

New Hampshire has had and will have California-sized earthquakes (the largest, which occurred in 1638, is estimated to have had a magnitude of 6.5), but those quakes don't have anywhere near the frequency as they do in California. Likewise, the largest tornado reported to have struck New Hampshire had a reported path a half-mile wide and fifty miles long. It killed six people and left hundreds homeless. But that was in 1821. Tornadoes of that intensity are rare in New Hampshire, although they are nearly an annual occurrence for states located in Tornado Alley. Rather than dwelling on the low probability of the occurrence of a particular natural disaster, we simply state that in New Hampshire we suffer from low-frequency-high-risk events.

But the question remained: How do we prepare our schools to respond to almost any hazard?

In our first attempt we developed planning guidelines for schools that would cover all hazards. This effort met with very limited success. We found that school administrators had no idea how to develop an emergency response plan. Few involved local emergency responders, such as police and fire fighters, in developing a plan. Many school officials simply gave the computer disk we provided as an outline to a secretary and had her fill in the blanks. The school could say that it had a plan, but it probably would not work in a real emergency. Even fire drills-the only type of emergency exercise that school staff and students were familiar with-were not done properly. Staff did not take attendance following evacuation of the building. There was typically no provision for cold-weather evacuation, and few schools had designated an off-site building where evacuated students would be taken in an emergency. And, though recommended, none of the schools practiced drop, cover, and hold drills.

We reassessed the program and developed some basic understandings:

  1. The education of our children is the primary responsibility of school personnel.
  2. Emergency personnel are duty-bound to aid schools in emergency planning.
  3. The plan must cover all hazards.
  4. The plan must be user-friendly and created by the team that will use it.
  5. During emergencies school personnel are emergency responders.
  6. Everyone (including students and parents) must know his role in advance.
  7. Roles and procedures are tested and refined through drills and exercises.

For course materials, we adapted the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Multi-Hazards Emergency Planning for Schools course materials to reflect New Hampshire situations. The backbone of this material is the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS is a method of managing emergency situations, utilized internationally by emergency responders. By instituting a simplified ICS format school officials are able to exercise effective command and control, and increase coordination with outside organizations involved in an emergency response.

The use of ICS addressed one important aspect of emergency response, but we were still concerned with how the school staff would protect students and themselves during the first critical moments of an emergency.

The state fire marshal initiated a key development several years ago by changing the fire drill regulations to encourage the implementation of other types of drills. Schools were required to complete ten fire drills a year. The change allows them, with the permission of the local fire chief, to replace two of these drills with drills that address other types of emergencies. We recommend five types of drills that schools can use to respond to any emergency:

  • Evacuation: get out if interior of building is not as safe as outside;
  • Reverse Evacuation: go into the building if threat is perceived outside of building;
  • Shelter in Place: protection against a toxic plume (hazardous material, radiological, or smoke);
  • Lockdown: protection from an intruder incident; and
  • Drop, Cover, and Hold: protection from falling objects and any other perceived threat.

This is a true all hazards approach to school emergency planning. With these five drills, school personnel are able to react and respond to any hazard by utilizing one or a combination of them. They are also user-friendly and can be put into effect easily. Many organizations have produced "flipcharts" for teachers that cover everything from a broken leg to a terrorist attack and are usually long and complex. In New Hampshire we decided that it was much more important to give school personnel and students the ability to respond instantly without having to look up what to do.

For example, the first warning a teacher may have of a tornado strike in New Hampshire may be looking out a window and seeing pine trees flying through the air. This scenario does not leave any time to look through a flipchart. Instead the teacher gives the drop command. As with an earthquake the students (and teacher) drop under their desks. After the danger has passed, an assessment is done of damages and injuries. Based on these findings the next step could be any action, from an evacuation (on- or off-site) to nothing at all. The same response would be used for an earthquake. That same teacher could see someone walk onto school property with a firearm. The response in that situation would be pretty much the same. The teacher would give the drop command to protect the students, but in this case the teacher would also notify the office of an intruder on campus and go into lockdown.

We cannot expect school personnel to spend many hours in practicing procedures. The drop, lockdown, and shelter in place drills do not have to be practiced by the whole school at the same time. We recommend that teachers practice these with each of their classes. They can be accomplished anytime the class has a spare moment. With this approach emergency drills don't cut into class time. The reverse evacuation drill can be practiced just before the normal end of recess or physical education, again to save time and reduce complications. Only after the students and staff are comfortable with them should drills be held involving the entire school.

Flexibility is one of the keys to an effective response. We cannot script emergencies, whether they are man-made or natural. The next emergency is never going to be like the last one. But with these five drills in place a school can respond to any hazard. For example, in the case of a shooter on campus, school personnel may utilize several of these drills at once. Personnel close to the shooter may institute evacuation and/or drop in order to protect personnel in or to clear the kill zone, while others not in the immediate vicinity of the shooter may lock down. One elementary school in New Hampshire called a lockdown when a teacher suffered a heart attack in a hallway. Emergency medical personnel had free access to the patient and no children were exposed to the situation. The bottom line is that school personnel are given the tools they need to protect the students and themselves and have more confidence in handling dangerous situations.

It should be said that schools still are one of the safest places for our children to be, but schools still have to be prepared for a variety of hazards. By instituting the Incident Command System, school administrators have a key tool to aid them in organizing, controlling, and coordinating the school's response to any situation. By the adoption of the five drills, school staff and students are given the tools to be able to react immediately to any emergency. This basic approach to school emergency planning will work anywhere, whether a school is located in a high- or moderate-hazard location. Of course, if a school is located in a high-hazard tornado or earthquake zone, administrators will need to put more time and effort into hazard-specific drills and exercises.

Our efforts to prepare New Hampshire schools better for earthquakes yielded much more than we anticipated. What started as an exclusive focus on earthquakes broadened into a comprehensive all-hazards approach to emergency planning. What started as an effort to introduce drop, cover, and hold drills in schools led to teaching five different drills that can be used to respond to any emergency. It also showed how many schools lacked any effective emergency response plan and helped to remedy that situation. Nine years after we started, the project has been well worth the effort. And yes, New Hampshire schools are better prepared for when the next major earthquake strikes.

Gregory B. Champlin
Natural Hazards Program Specialist
New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by e-mail or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 12 October 2001