Emergencies in school: Preparing for the unknown

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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All education settings are required to have emergency plans in place. These are designed to help you respond effectively to unforeseen incidents and a range of materials have been published to assist you with this. Suzanne O’Connell takes a look

Some readers will remember the preparations before the millennium. Schools were told to get ready for the worst and software companies wanted to sell us all manner of goods to protect our systems which would self-destruct on the last dong of midnight.

Of course, it didn’t happen. But then Covid did. We might sometimes feel complacent about preparing for a theoretical emergency, but the fact remains that it is an essential part of our work.

It might be a public health incident, severe weather, fire, serious injury or a criminal activity such as an intruder or bomb threat. We all hope to avoid a major crisis, but smaller, domestic incidents are much more common. Boilers breaking down, leaks and structural building problems can create emergencies of their own and are perhaps more likely to happen.

So how far should we go down the line of preparing for the unknown? Although we can’t arm ourselves against every eventuality the Department for Education (DfE) is keen for us to ensure that we have the first steps in place to guide us through a crisis situation.

We can prepare our communication systems and ensure that we have procedures in place to inform people as quickly and efficiently as possible and/or alert them to a danger either in school or outside.

This is about visualising and considering what actions we should take more than setting every possible scenario onto paper.

It is important here to distinguish between policies aimed at preventing an emergency from happening and plans you have in place for if an emergency does occur. In this article we are concerned with the latter. If the unthinkable happens – what do you do?

The government advice

The DfE has produced a range of templates and planning checklists that can be used to assist you in thinking through your emergency procedures (DfE, 2019). These include:

  • Site security guidance
  • A self-assessment emergency incident planning checklist
  • Risk assessment template
  • A business continuity plan template and checklist
  • An evacuation template
  • A shelter (invacuation) template
  • A bomb alert and threat template
  • A lockdown template
  • A post incident support checklist
  • Debrief and lessons learned checklist
  • Terrorist incident response template

To some extent the individual checklists are combined in the Self-assessment emergency incident planning checklist (DfE, 2022). This document provides an overview of what you should have in place and may be a useful place to start.

It includes a reminder of the different groups who need to be made aware of plans. This can be a tricky one as “visitors” are identified and yet it would be very difficult and unrealistic to expect all visitors to be aware of what they should do in case of a terrorist attack, for example. In this case what is most important is that every visitor is in a place where a member of staff who has that information can guide them.

In June, the DfE published further advice in its non-statutory guidance document Emergency planning and response for education, childcare and children’s social care settings. It provides an overview of what you should include in the planning process and references and links with materials produced by Nottinghamshire County Council (see further information).

Nottinghamshire’s Schools Emergency Plan is a comprehensive document that provides sections on which you can keep contact details and useful templates for recording your actions and the actions of others, for example the educational visit leader. It would certainly be beneficial to have familiarised yourself with the content and have it to hand if any of these incidents should occur.

Lockdown and shelter (invacuation)

It is difficult to use the term “lockdown” without bringing to mind our response to Covid. However, it also refers to a policy where an agreed signal is given that means staff and pupils should stay in their classrooms and lock doors and windows. It is, in fact, the opposite of evacuation and might be applied where an intruder is on site.

There are also differences between lockdown and shelter arrangements. Shelter arrangements apply when it is not necessary to protect staff and pupils from intruders. So, for example, if there is an environmental hazard outside the school building such as a chemical spill or smoke. Lockdown is needed in the case of a hostile intruder, terrorist attack or other criminal activity.


For an emergency which suggests that people would be safer outside the building than inside, then evacuation is likely. This will be signalled by the fire alarm and all school staff and pupils must be aware of the procedures for responding. They should also be aware of how the signal for all clear will be given.

Everyone should be familiar with the assembly point, but also have an alternative assembly point available close by. The DfE template suggests that this might be a partner school, college or leisure centre. However, a local school field or park might present a more immediate alternative.

Bomb threats

Bomb alerts may lead to evacuation but not necessarily and they are given their own template. This is because although it is possible that the threat issued relates to a bomb in the school, in some cases it might be in another local building or outside the school, making the school a safer option.

On the bomb alert/threat template it requires that a different signal is used to that of the fire alarm. It points out that it would be unusual to evacuate the entire building and that in fact, evacuation may not be the safest thing to do particularly if you do not know where the bomb is located.

The checklist is accompanied by a useful set of instructions for what to do if you spot a suspicious item, package or mail item, or if you receive a bomb threat by telephone, by email or by social media.

The important message here is that any threat such as this has to be taken seriously “no matter how ridiculous or implausible the threat may seem” and the police must be informed. Similarly, the police must be informed in case of a suspicious item.

Emergency Planning Group

Bring together a small team of people as a Emergency Planning Group and use the government checklists to review how much good practice is already covered in your existing documentation and what needs to be added and where.

It is beneficial if you can include your site supervisor and school business manager in this group – both have a key role to play in identifying ways to ensure that everyone is informed and that the strengths and weaknesses of your building are taken into account. The self-assessment emergency incident planning checklist is a good place to start but don’t be daunted by this. Break it down into separate sections if necessary.

Take time to consider the information that would be useful for emergency services. Your site supervisor may not be on site when an incident takes place so take time to collect this information beforehand. Make sure you have a site plan that provides the information that emergency services might need (see the self-assessment emergency incident planning checklist)


The main feature of any emergency planning is communication with those in your building and the services outside. In most cases, once the threat has been identified the emergency services themselves will provide you with advice about the next steps. Your first job is to secure your people and then to seek advice.

  • How will you alert people inside the school in these different scenarios?
  • How will you contact emergency services?
  • How will you check that you know where your staff and pupils are and that they are accounted for?
  • How will you keep parents informed of the situation?
  • How will you deal with enquiries from the press – some of which might be intrusive?

Carefully consider people’s roles during the emergency and make sure that they are clear about what is expected from them. It can be beneficial on these plans to refer to the job titles rather than the names of the individuals. It is vital that you keep emergency contact information up-to-date and that everyone has the contact details they need at home too.

Remember, it may not be you who first becomes aware of the emergency. All staff need to know how to respond initially to an intruder, for example, or a fire. All staff need to know who to contact and how to raise an alarm as it might be them who is in a situation where a decision has to be made quickly.


Perhaps most important and also difficult to do is to provide the reassurance that people will need. Keeping people calm is essential in these situations and you will need to demonstrate the behaviour you expect from others. As a school leader you already know how to do this. However, you will find that some of your staff struggle to keep composure and in the aftermath of a crisis you may need to signpost them to where they can go for help.

It depends upon the type of emergency, but in most cases you will want to be visible to your staff and students and communicating with them. Repeat key messages and ensure all groups know how they can access information. Making sure that communication is regular and timely can prevent rumours spreading and inaccuracies taking hold.

The good news is that you have a range of documents and templates to use to help you prepare and consider your communication strategies and initial actions to take. There is comprehensive documentation to help you record and proceed with next steps once the immediate emergency is dealt with. However, every emergency will be unique, and it is, in the end, your own intuition and immediate assessment of the situation and the risks that will help guide you to a safe outcome for your staff and pupils. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources

  • DfE: School and College Security & Self-assessment emergency incident planning checklist, November 2019: https://bit.ly/3QKyrcm
  • DfE: Emergency planning and response for education, childcare and children’s social care settings, June 2022: https://bit.ly/3QZ3dO7
  • Nottinghamshire County Council: School emergencies resources: https://bit.ly/3QKyEwa

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