When emergencies strike, the personnel on-scene are the best line of protection and defense. First responders like police and firefighters can arrive quickly, but the designated emergency response team handles the time preceding their arrival. They are responsible for activating the emergency response plan and the subsequent steps that keep people safe. In fact, the emergency response plan, as prepared by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), includes the formation of the emergency response team itself. Because emergencies and their responses are largely dictated by the environment in which they take place, NIMS details the particular response teams that are to be implemented in schools.
The school emergency response team (SERT) is responsible for the safety of students and staff during dangerous situations. Emergency situations like hurricanes, earthquakes, medical emergencies and active shooters, are examples of situations that pose an immediate threat. Emergencies, whether natural disasters or man-made situations, come on suddenly and unexpectedly. This is why SERT members must be alert, trained and prepared. Emergency professionals working with OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and U.S. Homeland Security help schools prepare their emergency plan and create a SERT with defined roles.
Who Should Be on a SERT?
A school emergency response team (SERT) is comprised of diverse members, each offering expertise in a certain area. Members are interviewed, reviewed and chosen by the principal, who usually takes on the lead role of Incident Commander. Before assigning roles, the principal asks for volunteers. Volunteers are preferred, because they are the individuals who are most interested and eager to assume a SERT position. Each member of the SERT must be an active, willing and engaged participant.
During the review process, principals address several factors to determine a candidate’s suitability. These factors include mental, physical and medical health; their usual location within the school; their knowledge of the school’s floor plan; and overall leadership and communication skills. SERTs are usually comprised of 5-11 members, but that can vary depending on the size of the school. When considering staff, principals look at certain positions that are naturally inclined toward SERT. These include: counselors, nurses, teachers, custodians and coaches. While on-site security or law enforcement personnel are separate from the SERT, they are part of the school’s total emergency response and as such, undertake related duties.
Who is the SERT Leader?
The leader of the SERT is called the Incident Commander (IC.). This role and its responsibilities are usually shouldered by the school’s principal. The principal can designate someone else as IC if that individual is more qualified. ICs work with local safety professionals and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to create an emergency response plan, form the team, and initialize the plan when an emergency arises. The IC makes the final decision regarding the implementation of response measures such as lockdowns and evacuations.
One of the key responsibilities of the IC involves properly assessing an emergency situation. The school emergency response team doesn’t take any responsive action until the IC officially declares an emergency. Because there are varying responses to different emergencies, ICs are careful when deciding which emergency response is most appropriate. For example, if a dangerous thunderstorm is imminent, the IC will activate SERT and the emergency response plan for inclement weather. This plan – requiring staff and students to find shelter – is very different from an emergency such as one that involves toxic gas within the school. The response to that type of situation requires staff and students to evacuate.
Roles and Responsibilities of SERT members
Every SERT has various members, and each member has a designated role to fulfill. Emergency management professionals note that when SERT members are given clear roles and directions, emergency responses are more orderly, systematic and effective. Each SERT role has unique responsibilities. They also have a universal directive: to maintain student safety and well-being.
In addition to an Incident Commander, every SERT has a Public Safety Liaison. This position is responsible for communicating with outside agencies from the emergency site. The role can be played by a teacher, or by a school resource officer (SRO) who is otherwise free to assume the position. Another SERT role is the Occupant Accounting Coordinator. This individual ensures all staff and students are accounted for throughout the emergency. Although the Occupant Accounting Coordinator can’t literally count everyone, they can implement a system during the emergency to record the real-time whereabouts and activities of students and staff.
The SERT Facility Access Coordinator monitors utilities such as water and electric power. Emergencies can often threaten the viability of utility grids, which in turn can greatly exacerbate the emergency situation. Usually filled by a veteran custodian, the Facility Access Coordinator is also responsible for securing gates, buildings, doors and the like during lockdowns.
The SERT role of Floor Warden may be assumed by a variety of personnel. When the IC declares an emergency and triggers the appropriate response, Floor Wardens quickly and safely spread the message. While technology has made for rapid communication, those systems may be rendered inoperable by the emergency. As a result, Floor Wardens are used to ensure delivery of the emergency message, no matter the condition of the school’s communication systems and resources.
Designing School Safety
While a SERT is the first line of defense during a school emergency, safety and emergency management professionals work tirelessly to prevent any emergency from ever occurring within a school. These professionals take an active role in helping design a school’s floor plan, educate staff, implement policies and select office equipment to minimize safety risks and damage caused by emergencies.
Through improved school design, coordinating local emergency resources, adhering to national emergency response protocols and properly preparing SERTs — emergency situations in schools can be handled quickly and efficiently. The ultimate goal is to achieve a safer, more secure and more peaceful educational system for us all.
Earning a master’s in emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University can help you increase your knowledge of the safety industry and demonstrate a continued commitment to learning and leadership. Whether you aspire to work at the governmental level or move into the private sector, our distinguished faculty of safety professionals delivers a comprehensive curriculum that can translate wherever safety matters most.