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Understanding School Emergency Operations Plans

Evaluating the Utility of Emergency Operations Plans for K-12 School Safety


To better understand how schools use an emergency operations plan when preparing for violent or threatening situations and to examine whether students and staff are knowledgeable of their school’s emergency protocols.


With funding from the National Institute of Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, we studied emergency operations plans for 10 K-12 schools and assessed the extent to which nearly 2,000 students and staff understood their school’s emergency protocols using comprehension surveys. We also conducted interviews with 162 students and staff members combined to further evaluate the utility of emergency operations plans in schools. 


Our findings revealed that students and staff generally understood the purpose of various emergency procedures, but they were less knowledgeable about actions to take, roles and responsibilities, and other details documented in their school’s emergency operations plan. Additionally, we found significant variability in knowledge, engagement with safety efforts, and feelings of preparedness across different types of school personnel (e.g., teachers, food service staff). 

The escalation of violence on school campuses has made school safety a top priority at national, state, and local levels over the last quarter century. Schools have invested in heightened security, threat assessment teams, anonymous reporting tip lines, emergency drills, and other strategies to better prevent and respond to violence. More than ever, schools are expected to have emergency operations plans that document protocols for responding to a wide range of situations. 

Because these plans contain sensitive information, researchers have had few opportunities to study them firsthand. Little is known about information contained in the plans, how they are used to promote safety, and the extent to which students and staff are knowledgeable of their protocols. 

With a record number of reported school shootings in 2022 and 2023 alone, the need for researchers to study and better understand the effectiveness of emergency operations plans in school settings is more urgent than ever. 

RTI Among the First to Study School Emergency Operations Plans

With funding from the National Institute of Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, RTI’s Center for Evidence-Based Strategies to Reduce Firearm Violence reviewed school emergency operations. This study evaluated the extent to which students, educators, and other staff members were knowledgeable of the information in their school’s emergency operations plans. 

The logic of our study was initially based on two core assumptions. First, emergency operation plans are an essential part of a school’s emergency management system because it is here that protocols, roles, responsibilities, and other details are documented. Second, students and staff members being knowledgeable of those details is an important part of a school’s ability to carry out a coordinated emergency response.

Surveying Schools on Their Emergency Operations Plans

We worked with 10 middle and high schools to gain access to each school’s site-level emergency operations plan. These schools varied in urbanicity and size and were collectively located in 7 states (Washington, West Virginia, California, New York, Colorado, Ohio, and Georgia). This task presented challenges because each school had varying definitions of an emergency operations plan. The plans also varied significantly in presentation as well as the level of information provided--some were hundreds of pages long, well organized, and highly detailed, while others were much shorter with only broad overviews of a few core procedures.

From there, we created comprehensive surveys to assess how well students and staff knew the school’s emergency procedures and whether there were gaps that needed to be addressed. Because the plans were so different across schools, we designed comprehension surveys specific to each school to ensure the language and procedures we referred to were familiar to each school community.

Staff surveys included approximately 37 comprehension questions, and student surveys included approximately 25 comprehension questions. Both staff and student surveys utilized a mix of close-ended multiple choice, select all that apply, true/false, and open-ended question formats. 

Survey and Interview Results From the Emergency Operations Plans

We received a total of 585 completed surveys for staff, and 1,326 surveys for students. 
We also conducted site visits along with direct interviews with 162 students and staff combined. From our interviews and survey responses, we discovered the following insights: 

  • Most essential staff had received recent training on emergency procedures and had read at least a portion of their school’s emergency operations plan.
  • Certain staff (i.e. teaching assistants, custodians, and food service staff) were less likely to know about specific procedures, to have received training, or to serve on an emergency team.
  • Newer staff were less likely to feel adequately prepared to respond to an emergency.
  • Non-instructional staff often felt “left out” of the emergency planning process, including knowing about policy changes and when drills were scheduled.
  • Students exhibited considerably lower levels of comprehension than staff (as expected because they do not have direct access to the emergency operations plan). Like staff, they exhibited the strongest levels of comprehension for understanding the purpose or logic of different procedures but were less knowledgeable about specific actions to take during emergencies.

From the open-ended survey, we learned that most respondents – staff and students alike – identified locking the door as a critical action for lockdowns but were much less likely to mention secondary procedures such as covering windows or sweeping the halls. 

A subset in each school also described specific actions that were not documented in their school’s emergency operation plan. Sometimes these actions were logical and may have been learned through in-person training (e.g. barricading the door), but other times, they directly contradicted their emergency operation plan. For example, some respondents mentioned the use of placards to signify their safety status to first responders, although their school’s emergency operations plan explicitly directed students and staff against doing so. 

Moreover, in every school a handful of respondents indicated that they did not know what they were supposed to do during a lockdown, or they provided generic answers when asked to describe specific procedures (e.g., “keep everyone safe”). Many students and staff confused or interchanged the procedures for lockdown, evacuation, or shelter in place. We also found several instances in which a school’s emergency operations plan used specific terms that respondents indicated they were unfamiliar with. When we reported these findings, school safety leaders often acknowledged that the language used in the plan was not consistent with what was used in drills or training exercises with staff and students.

Emergency Operations Plan Contradictions and Complexities

During the school visits, we discovered that the use of emergency operations plans is more complex than initially understood. Administrators and other staff who led emergency planning efforts recognized the importance of the plans as a “touchstone” that they could always refer to. They believed that knowledge of the emergency operations plan protocols among students and staff was paramount for protecting the school against threats, and they emphasized the importance of involving students and staff in planning efforts as a way of building buy-in. 

However, despite their potential as a reference guide and training resource, emergency operations plans were not always disseminated to staff, and staff were not always expected to read the plans. A more common viewpoint was that people learn by participating in in-person drills, tabletop exercises, and other activities better than they do by reading protocols. An emergency operation plan was viewed as a way to document details and not as a training resource.

There was also confusion on what constituted an official emergency operations plan. Some staff believed handouts and classroom posters represented the school’s plan, and others thought that they wouldn’t have time to engage with an emergency operations plan despite being unaware whether their school had one. Among those who had read the plan, not all staff perceived it as useful or as an accurate portrayal of how the school planned to respond to a crisis. This is not to say that the schools were not prepared or were not making adequate attempts to prepare for a crisis. However, this study highlighted the fact that many schools invested tremendous effort developing materials that did not appear to be integral to the way people learn about or enact emergency protocols.  

Recommendations Based on Emergency Operations Plans Review

Our study found that schools often have detailed emergency operations plans, but student and staff understanding of how to respond to various emergency situations does not always align with those plans. Moreover, engagement with safety planning varies significantly across different members of the school community. The implications of these findings are that some schools may face challenges in implementing a cohesive and effective response to an emergency.

Although emergency operations plans were not being utilized in schools as often, or in the way we initially anticipated, they still serve an important purpose. An important feature of emergency operation plans is that they allow schools to coordinate with local agencies and organizations, thinking through the moving parts involved with their plans. They act as a reference for the evaluation of drills and emergencies and assure other agencies that the schools have a plan in place.

Additionally, using an emergency operations plan as a training resource is a low-cost, low-burden strategy that schools can use in addition to drills, tabletop exercises, regular debriefings, and other activities to standardize language and procedures, ultimately creating a well-rounded system for helping others. While drills and in-person training activities effectively prepare students and staff for a crisis, they are time-consuming and require a great deal of coordination that can disrupt the school day and potentially cause adverse psychological impact on participants. 

Based on our findings, our recommendations for schools include:

  • Clearly define what materials constitute the emergency operations plan, and then train staff to understand what it is, why it is valuable, and how they are expected to use it.
  • Consider the development of emergency operations plans to be an ongoing process, making frequent updates to materials as protocols change or new ones are added.
  • Create an inclusive culture around emergency preparedness by involving a diverse range of staff in leadership roles and providing opportunities to serve on safety teams, develop plans and polices, and provide input on safety concerns and solutions.
  • Engage in open dialogue about safety issues with students and staff, soliciting feedback about what helps them feel informed and prepared. Help identify where the gaps are in safety efforts or knowledge of emergency protocols.
  • Assess the extent to which training efforts (e.g., drills) as well as student and staff understanding of emergency procedures and terminology are consistent with the emergency operations plan.
  • Once emergency operations plan materials have been developed to accurately reflect how the school will respond to an emergency, create opportunities for staff to regularly review and provide feedback on the plan and consider creating quick-reference guides that staff can use to access critical information for specific protocols (e.g., lockdowns).

Learn more about RTI’s Center for Evidence-Based Strategies to Reduce Firearm Violence. 

Learn more about actionable recommendations from this study and a companion study

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