National Effort Addresses School Emergencies
In a time when schools are warned to expect any number of catastrophes—from attacks by terrorists to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS—a new public-private partnership aims to help districts plan for emergencies they are most likely to face one day.
The Safe & Secure Schools Project, led by the National Association of State Fire Marshals and financed in part by a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will start working with pilot schools to tailor individual safety plans based on details such as location, weather, past emergencies, state mandates, and student demographics.
The goal of the project, the various partners say, is not to sell schools on any one remedy or product, but to give them the tools to decide on the best and most cost- effective way to meet their distinct security needs.
Over the years, a multimillion-dollar business and numerous government mandates have sprung up in response to a public demand for safer schools. Districts and local governments have shelled out money for metal detectors, armed police, surveillance cameras, and emergency planning.
Such measures gained further momentum after the deadly 1999 Columbine High School shootings. And, for districts in some areas of the country, the perceived need to bulk up security and prepare for the worst was reinforced by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
'Real Risks and Threats'
Concerns about school security have abated somewhat for some educators, but the money continues to flow, and experts worry that those dollars are rarely put to the best use.
"What we're hearing from school administrators is that they're having to respond to the last salesman through the door," said Robert Polk, a senior policy adviser for the Washington-based National Association of State Fire Marshals.
"There are real risks and threats, and perceived risks and threats," he said. "We don't want educators spending time and scarce resources on problems they may not have."
Though still in the formative stages, the Safe & Secure Schools Project is expected to begin working with a diverse group of 10 pilot schools across the country as early as this spring, providing guidance on distinct categories of contingencies, including intruders and violence, fires and explosions, infectious-disease and biochemical hazards, and natural disasters. The pilot project will include urban, suburban, and rural schools.
The group will help schools review and set priorities for safety risks, evaluate and choose methods for dealing with those possibilities, and determine how to pay for those security needs.
Mr. Polk said the project has received encouragement from the federal departments of Education and Homeland Security, and he anticipates that the grant seeding the initiative will be renewed in the new fiscal year.
The two other major partners in the effort are the National Infrastructure Institute Center for Infrastructure Expertise in Portsmouth, N.H., and Honeywell International Inc., both of which already do work for the federal government related to homeland security.
The initial services offered by the group, mainly assessment and planning, are free of charge, Mr. Polk said. But that's not to say that some of the partners have nothing to sell.
Honeywell, a Fortune 100 company based in Morristown, N.J., will lead the partnership's security-consulting efforts in the area of technology. The company also markets its own security products to schools, such as the new Honeywell Instant Alert system, technology that allows administrators to send out electronic messages to parents' home and work phones, cellphones, email accounts, and pagers during emergencies.
'Solutions Out There'
Still, Laura Farnham, the vice president of marketing for Honeywell Building Solutions, said the company stands to spend more than it will gain from participating, and that Honeywell only sought to join the partnership after being approached by the state fire marshal's association.
Ms. Farnham said Honeywell's experience in the education market made it a good fit for the partnership, and she likened the role of the initiative to that of matchmaker: "We know there are solutions out there, and we know that there are available funds out there."
The goal, she said, is to bring the two together in a way that best serves schools.
Vol. 23, Issue 25, Page 10Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as National Effort Addresses School Emergencies