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 prior to their arrival it is the designated emergency response team that handles things. They are responsible for activating the emergency response plan and the subsequent steps that keep people safe.
The emergency response plan, as guided 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 describes how particular response teams, known as school emergency response teams (SERTs), should be implemented in K-12 schools and higher education institutions.
Individuals interested in helping prepare for, and respond to, emergencies in the education field can consider earning a Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management degree.
What Is a SERT?
The school emergency response team (SERT) is responsible for the safety of students and staff during dangerous situations. Emergency situations such as 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, which 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.
A school emergency response team is composed 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 (IC). 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.
The leader of the SERT is the Incident Commander. 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.
During the review process, the IC addresses several factors to determine the suitability of SERT candidates. 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 made up of 5 to 11 members, but the number of members 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.
Emergency Response Team Roles and Responsibilities
Every school emergency response team 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. The following SERT roles have unique responsibilities.
Public Safety Liaison
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.
Occupant Accounting Coordinator
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.
Facility Access Coordinator
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 an emergency. As a result, Floor Wardens are used to ensuring the delivery of the emergency message, no matter the condition of the school’s communication systems and resources.
Earn an Advanced Degree in Emergency Management
Earning a Master of Science in Safety, Security and 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 deliver a comprehensive curriculum that can translate wherever safety matters most.
Learn more about how the program can prepare you for a position that impacts a school emergency response team or another occupational safety team.