If a disaster happened tomorrow, would you know what to do, where to go, or how to act quickly and get to safety? Many students, particularly those who are new to an area, might not know the ins and outs of disaster prep for their school, and this lack of preparedness can pose a number of issues for students and their families. From natural disasters to on-campus safety issues, it’s best to educate yourself and be prepared for any scenario that might arise, so that you can act quickly and correctly in any situation.
A study of disaster preparedness from the University of Mississippi, found that response and recovery efforts were more successful for colleges that conducted exercises and training, developed all-hazards preparedness plans (which accounts for a range of both man-made and natural disasters), and strengthened partnerships within the campus community.
Comprehensive planning is the most effective mode of planning. By the end of this guide, you’ll know what you need to do to be prepared for and act calmly in any emergency. And, while you can’t focus too much energy worrying about the what-ifs, at least you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to prepare yourself ahead of time.
Disaster Scenarios – What Would You Do?
The examples below illustrate three different disaster scenarios and ways in which students might respond. By reading the differences in responses, you’ll be able to understand the contrast between prepared and unprepared students and see how being prepared can reduce stress and keep you safe and calm during an emergency.
Scenario #1 – A Hurricane
A hurricane is about to hit the area and an evacuation is suggested. What do you do?
- Student #1 – The unprepared student: A student who is unprepared for a hurricane has done no advance planning and doesn’t know what the evacuation plan is for their school. This student responds to a hurricane warning by disregarding evacuation orders and deciding to stay at the school to finish their paper or hang out with their friends. By not taking the evacuation order seriously, this student puts themselves and others in greater danger if the situation escalates and evacuation becomes impossible.
- Student #2 – The prepared student: As a prepared student, you take the evacuation orders seriously and act as soon as a hurricane develops. You quickly grab your emergency kit, which includes a first-aid kit, flashlights, and other important items. You contact your family members to inform them of the situation and ask them to help you evacuate to a safe location. You also alert your friends to make sure they’re aware of the situation and are safe. Finally, you make sure you have all of your important documents and belongings as well as any medications you may need before you evacuate.
Scenario #2 – On-campus Active Shooter
You are on campus and you can hear gunfire nearby. What do you do?
- Student #1 – The unprepared student: The unprepared student panics, becomes disoriented and overwhelmed, and feels unsure of what to do. Instead of running and hiding, they feel paralyzed with fear, potentially putting themselves in more danger. If they flee, they run in a random direction without any plan. If they take shelter, they do so in a haphazard manner, not considering the best places to hide or how to stay safe.
- Student #2 – The prepared student: The prepared student stays calm and takes action. They assess the situation and take into account the direction of the gunfire and the potential for danger. If necessary, they evacuate to a safe area away from the gunfire. They know where safe zones are located on campus and have a plan for how to get there. They also have a plan for what to do if they run into danger on the way. They are aware of the best places to hide and how to stay safe if they can’t get away.
Scenario #3 – A Global Pandemic
A global pandemic is heating up. School has decided to shift to a fully remote mode of learning, and you must evacuate campus. How do you handle this situation?
- Student #1 – The unprepared student: The unprepared student is in a state of panic. They don’t have the technology or resources to make the transition to remote learning nor do they know how to respond accordingly. They are confused about whether or not to leave campus and are overwhelmed with all the sudden changes. In their panic, they accidentally expose themselves and others to the illness that is spreading around losing precious time in class and impacting their grades.
- Student #2 – The prepared student: The prepared student handles the situation calmly. They have planned for the possibility of remote learning and have the necessary technology and resources in place. They know what they need to do to evacuate the campus, including arranging transportation and where to store items they can’t take with them. They pay attention to protocol and follow the direction of the school and local authorities. This student is in touch with family, friends, and faculty as needed to help manage the situation and adapt to the changes.
How to Be Prepared for Any Emergency
It’s impossible to be fully prepared for any emergency, but you can take steps to ensure that you have a plan in place if something does happen. Create an emergency contact list of family, friends, and local emergency services; make sure you have an emergency kit with items you may need; practice emergency drills so that everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency; and stay informed about current events in your area and the world. Being prepared helps you stay safe and lessens the impact of any emergency situation.
Make a Personal Emergency Plan
Make a plan now for what you will do if disaster strikes in your area, based on where you live. For example, you might not live where there are hurricanes, but you might have tornados or earthquakes. Run through scenarios and how you will handle them. Do you know who to call if you need assistance, including family, friends, and emergency services? Do you know where your safe spaces are if you need to seek shelter? If you need to leave your location, what transportation would you need to get out? The more details you can think through ahead of time, the less overwhelming an emergency situation will be. You can’t know everything that will happen, but you can be prepared for the more-likely events such as a bad storm and the effects of it like power outages, being unable to drive anywhere, etc.
Know Your School's Emergency Plan
Schools typically have emergency evacuation plans and protocols on file with the school’s administration in case of fire or an active shooter. These documents can be accessed by contacting the school’s emergency management department. It is important for school staff and students to be familiar with evacuation plans and protocols in case of an emergency.
That said, you can’t worry whether or not others are prepared. All you can do is your part in ensuring that you are prepared and know how to handle any emergency. Stay informed and aware and be sure to let your friends know too. In the event of an emergency, you can help others who don’t know what to do while also keeping yourself safe.
Make Sure Everyone is Aware of the Plan
If you live in an area where natural disasters are prone to happening such as hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes, you might be familiar with disaster protocol. But some students maybe new to the area or not as familiar with what to do. Before an emergency occurs, make sure you have a plan in place and that everyone you are responsible for is familiar with it. This includes discussing the evacuation plan with your friends, roommates, or classmates.
Make sure everyone you are close to or responsible for knows where they should go in the event of an emergency, including which stairwells and exits to use in each building. Helping others be prepared increases the chances of everyone being safe in an emergency. You might worry that people will think you are overreacting and worrying too much about possible emergencies, but focus on what you need to do for your own peace of mind.
Have an Emergency Bag Ready
Having an emergency bag for disasters is a crucial way to be prepared, particularly if you live in an area where natural disasters are a common problem (ex. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, winter storms.) Your bag should include essential items such as water, food, a flashlight, a first aid kit, a blanket, a whistle, matches, an extra set of clothes, medications, and a map. It should also include important documents such as a copy of your driver’s license, social security card, passport, and insurance information. Be sure to update your emergency bag at least once per year to ensure your items are up to date and in good condition. When packing your bag, keep in mind that it should be light enough to carry and store it so you can access it quickly in case of an emergency. If you drive a lot, it’s not a bad idea to keep this bag in your car in case you need it.
Get informed by signing up for emergency alerts from local authorities and news sources. Your school may even have an emergency text system that alerts you in the event of evacuations, weather emergencies, and shootings on campus. Additionally, keep an eye on the news, both local and national, for information about weather, health, and safety. Your local news may even have an app that you can download and receive notifications through. Also, be sure to follow your local government on social media for updates on road closures, power outages, and other emergency-related information.
Let Your Extended Family Know the Plan
Let your family know your emergency plan ahead of time so they know how to contact you or where they might be able to find you if the usual modes of communication aren’t available. Memorizing the phone numbers of your emergency contacts helps ease the inevitable fears and confusion that come up in emergency situations. Include contact information for emergency services and local hospitals in case someone needs to call on your behalf.
What’s in the Bag? A Checklist for Your Emergency Kit
Making sure you have a bag packed or at least a checklist ready for what to include in an emergency bag helps ensure that you don’t forget an essential item when you need it most. Thinking about a potential emergency may seem overwhelming, so creating tangible action plans can be among the most reassuring and productive things that you can do to set yourself up to be safer.
Make sure that once you create this list, you keep it in a place that is accessible and that you will remember, should the time come that you need to use it. Storing it on a phone or computer and on paper will help to ensure that you are able to access the list even if one or the other is unavailable. And while the items you may need will vary based on the type and severity of the emergency, here are some basic ideas that serve as a baseline for what to include in your emergency kit:
Disaster Preparedness Resources
Having a broad selection of resources accessible for emergency and disaster situations can help maximize your safety. The following list of resources is ready to help you understand risk, preparation, and disaster relief in schools.
- Cornell University Emergency Management Website: This comprehensive resource provides emergency action guides for more than 15 different types of emergencies, plus general emergency preparedness information.
- Disaster Planning and Emergency Preparedness for Students: Learn how and why to prepare for natural disasters and other emergencies and find resources to help with this guide from Student Training & Education in Public Service.
- Earthquake Drills, Plans, and Supplies: This article from Nature.com details preparing and responding in an earthquake.
- Emergency Preparedness for College Students: Cyalume Technologies, maker of light sticks, flares, luminous tape, and other safety items, offers a quick overview of emergency preparedness.
- Emergency Preparedness Guide: Developed by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, this guide breaks down the steps to prepare for an emergency and offers resources for how to stay informed.
- Five Lessons from Campuses that Closed After Natural Disasters: This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education details real experiences schools have faced.
- How College Students Can Plan for a Natural Disaster: Check out this breakdown of natural disasters, how to prepare for and respond to each, and a natural disaster risk map, all from TrustedChoice.
- How to Prepare Your Finances for Natural Disasters: Commerce Bank put together these tips for creating an action plan, including making an emergency financial first-aid kit, inventorying your possessions, and watching for disaster relief scams.
- Navigate360: This article outlines specific ways to be more prepared in an emergency including developing a plan, creating a crisis response team, developing a communication plan, providing practice and training, and partnering with a safety expert.
- Preparing for a Natural Disaster on Campus: This guide from Collegexpress provides quick tips for before, during, and after a natural disaster strikes.
- Preparing for Campus Emergencies: CollegiateParent offers ideas for how both students and parents can be prepared in the midst of an emergency.
- Ready.gov: Offers multiple resources for disaster preparedness and making plans for potential emergencies.
- 7 Key Things for a College Student’s Emergency Preparedness Checklist: Scan these tips from St. Leo University.
- Texas A&M Disaster Education Network: Learn how to develop a disaster plan and what supplies you’ll need for an emergency kit.
- University of North Georgia Emergency Action Plan: This helpful guide includes practical tips on how to report a crime, basic protective actions you can take for any emergency, and specific instructions for responding to shootings, bomb threats, earthquakes, and more.
Interview with An Emergency Preparedness Expert
Janet Denney is a public health school liaison who worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Foundation to support the Athens City-County Health Department during the COVID-19 pandemic. She received her bachelor of science degree in health and health services administration from Ohio University. She has worked with COVID-19 case investigations and immunization records for students and assisted in managing SARS-COV-2 outbreaks within the community.
Q. What do you think are the best ways students can be proactive in preparing for on-campus emergencies?
Students should utilize any school services that will give them access to as many emergency response crisis phone numbers, websites, and mental health referrals as needed. Campus therapists and social workers can be a resource before and after campus emergencies, as they can help to manage anxiety and worry to help maintain a calm attitude and promote mental well-being.
Q. What was your experience in grad school as an English language learner?
There are some variables here because some students may be more naturally equipped to handle an emergency. One student might be more comfortable leading a group in an emergency, whereas another might be more comfortable or only able to handle themselves. No matter what, the best way to respond is to remain calm. This is harder said than done. But try to keep a clear mind and go with your gut instinct because it always has your best interest at heart. Thinking too much in an urgent situation can create a delay in action that could end up putting you in harm’s way.
Q. What are common resources that students can find if they are concerned about potential emergencies?
Any government or organization website that has the most up-to-date and reliable information about preparation strategies and resources for students will be helpful.
Q. What is your role in helping students to prepare for emergencies?
I previously worked for Child Protective Service and the CDC Foundation to ensure safety of our most vulnerable.
Q. What advice would you give to students who are nervous about the prospect of a school emergency?
Stay calm and think rationally prior to making any significant life decisions. Use all of your resources. Making decisions from the perspective of how you would act to take care of a family member may help you to find some more clarity. Life is often unpredictable but thinking ahead about what actions you might need to take to get out of a potential emergency can help to take some of the uncertainty away.