September 18, 2018

Turning Chaos into Readiness

By Chris Porter, Business Development Manager

When I think back to my days in school and how we did fire drills, I often wonder, “What was the point?”  Each teacher knew when the drill was and, if it was cold out, so did we since they told us to bring our coats to class.  The bell would ring, we would line up quietly by the door, being careful not to make any more noise than needed by not moving chairs or desks along the way.  The teacher would grab her now obsolete dark green ring bound Ward Gradebook.  Once we were still and quiet, we would open the door and wait to file in behind the next class.  Shame on us if we were not ready and the next class down the hall had to go ahead of us.  We would walk quietly down the hall, down the stairs, and outside to the parking lot in a nice orderly line.  If it wasn’t perfect, Mr. Mentzer the principal would make us do it again and again until we got it just right.  This repeat-until-perfect tactic only worked on us in elementary school as we would have messed up on purpose to miss more class in high school.

Chris in elementary school!

We were ready.  If we had a fire that occurred on a sunny day, the teachers knew about it ahead of time, no one was in any danger, and no one felt the need to rush – we were ready.  A real fire with smoke, blocked hallways, panicked students, and confused staff?  Not so much.

If all of your drills are going as planned and result in a neat and orderly response, what are you really testing?  If a student gets really good at reading Go Dog Go, do you have them keep reading it or do you up the challenge?  Of course, we up the challenge.  Why is it acceptable to not up the challenge for school safety drills and acceptable to do the same thing year-after-year?

I get it, schools want order and if you give some students an inch, they take a mile.  But repetitive orderly drills do very little to  help your students in a real emergency and could actually prove a hindrance.

While this is backed up by a 100 years of fire science research, numerous case studies from previous events, results from military stress response training, and from hundreds of school safety experts, it’s also backed up with simple common sense.  If we want someone to be prepared for the unexpected, we have to make the preparation scenarios unexpected.  If want to see how students and staff respond in a stressful situation, we have to add a bit of stress to situation.  Obviously we can all walk through the door when we are not scared.  Will we trample each other, though, when we are scared?

When Chaos Leads to Preparation

Now, that does not mean we should be tossing smoke grenades, walking through our buildings shooting blanks, or throwing flash bangs at students as they are evacuating.  While I, personally, think that would be a ton of fun, we are not trying to turn our students and staff in Navy SEALS.  However, we can give them scenarios that challenge their thinking, change the norm, add a bit of stress, or that do not let them react the planned way.  In short, give them scenarios that require them to think.

While NaviGate Prepared offers dozens of text, audio, and video scenarios for you to use that will do just that, you can also do this on your own, using your own experience and imagination to write or record your own scenarios for your staff.  Use these or the scenarios with your staff to have them trigger your required drills.  Change the times you do the drills.  Ever try a lockdown as the buses are arriving the morning?  I bet that would be a mess but that is a very likely time a lockdown is needed!  You won’t ever know what the reaction will be unless you practice it first.  A little bit of chaos in your drill will actually increase your building’s response to emergencies and your staff’s confidence in their abilities.

Beyond your school wide drills, use different scenarios as professional development with staff.   Take 5 minutes from each faculty meeting to review a range of scenarios so your staff are prepared to respond to a range of different types of emergencies.  Don’t just focus one type of emergency such as armed intruder, be sure to vary them and include medical emergencies, angry parents, school fights – the things that are statistically more likely to happen.  When you do these, pick a staff member and give them 30 seconds – and only 30 seconds – to respond.  This group setting with a short time limit will add the stress factor they need when responding to the scenario.  As each staff gets their turn on the “hot seat”, all of your staff get a broader plan of action in an emergency.

Most teachers are really smart people.  Challenge them a bit and they just may surprise you.  If you don’t, how do you know if they are really prepared?

Share your ideas for scenarios in the comments below.

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Chad Leggett

I love his quote “We were ready. If we had a fire that occurred on a sunny day, the teachers knew about it ahead of time, no one was in any danger, and no one felt the need to rush – we were ready.” That hit the nail on the head. I always wanted to conduct a fire drill during lunch time, no one ever does. I would love know what to do when half the school is in the cafeteria and half the teachers are in the lounge. I’m no expert, but a fire may occur during those hours… Read more »

Charlie Hammonds

I agree totally. Disasters don’t happen on our schedule. When the disaster strikes we revert back to our training. We never trained for a between class disaster or lunch time disaster so we will have more victims period.

I agree – I know we have some of our 9-12 campuses that do drills at the end of the day so that the students can just leave. This is an issue – as all emergencies aren’t going to occur during the last bell!

Brian Frazier

Great points in this discussion. I asked the question about a fire drill during lunch. I was told each child would have to get a new tray of food and that expense is absorbed by the cafeteria. So the answer was no. I love the idea of a lock down during bus arrival and car rider drop off. The question there is how do you convey to parents driving in a car drop off line this is a drill and no one panic and run a child over.

Alexander Garey

I think this is something we all think when it comes to the basic drills that we are used to and I even remember as a kid thinking it was no big deal because we always knew ahead of time. Using the drills in situations that may not be expected is really when you find out what your weaknesses are.

Kelly Shenk

We had a bomb threat last week at our high school. Though scary (and unfounded, thankfully), the Navigate Prepared App was used during the event. Administrators were in constant communication. We felt a bit more prepared and ready to handle the situation.

I worry too that we only practice our safety drills with advanced warning, on the best day, and under ideal conditions. I am trying to encourage our staff to train as the real thins each time we do a drill. It is hard not get get students (and some staff) upset though when trying to hold a realistic drill.

This sentiment is still present in my current school. The principal and secretary are waiting for it to be “nice” outside for our next fire drill. I know very well that emergency situations do not care the weather outside. If the weather were cold/rainy during a fire, shouldn’t we practice a drill during that weather also? I would be interested to see what our time would be getting out of the building. We really do need to step out of our comfort zone here.


I like the idea of giving them scenarios and putting them on the “hot seat”. I also would to toss out a few smoke bombs and such to see the reaction and how they would handle the situation without knowing it was planned. Maybe a fog machine to make things interesting??
The scenarios and audio clips really do add a layer of practice and thought into situations.

Melissa McLean

“Beyond your school wide drills, use different scenarios as professional development with staff. Take 5 minutes from each faculty meeting to review a range of scenarios so your staff are prepared to respond to a range of different types of emergencies.”

I think this suggestion is key to creating a “culture of safety” both in the district, and in the school. Integrating short snippets of safety practice makes safety part of the everyday experience, and not just something that we think about once in awhile.

Daryl Miller

A change in pace for drills would be a good thing it’s just getting others to buy in on the idea.

Steven Zentz

Its good to push limits to get better results in the real situation. Just don’t do it in a way that causes other issue unintended.

Shannon Myers

So tired of planned drills. Spontaneous drills allow staff and students to truly understand how they would respond in emergency situations.


I think we should have drills that we as teachers don’t know are happening. This will help prepare us for real situations.

Julie Hermes

It’s always good to run through and prepare for multiple scenarios.


I think the scenarios should be in those moments when you don’t have complete control over your classroom – the cafeteria, recess, specials, or transitions in the hallway

Engaging in drills is essential to be prepared for real action.

Randall Williams

I agree totally. Disasters happen unexpectedly. When a disaster happens, we have been trained how to handle most situations. We never trained for a between class disaster or lunch time disaster so we will have more victims period