If an emergency or disaster occurs, is your childcare program prepared? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines an emergency as “any unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility’s financial standing or public image.”
Emergencies include natural disasters like tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. Chemical spills, civil disturbances, terrorism, communications failures, and hazardous materials incidents also can create emergency situations.
Emergencies can have major effects on childcare programs. Depending on the situation, you may have to evacuate the facility and move children to another location. It may become necessary for children to stay in your care for extended periods of time if the emergency closes roads and families cannot reach your facility. There also may be injuries that require you to provide first aid to staff or children.
In another scenario, a childcare program may not be directly affected by a disaster, but called on to provide emergency childcare or help to others who are impacted. Regardless of the specifics of an emergency situation, it is important for childcare providers to be prepared to implement sound emergency management.
Planning and Preparation
There are four phases of emergency management: planning, impact, relief, and recovery. In the planning stage, it is important to identify and assess emergencies that might occur and then list steps to take to lessen the impact of such emergencies.
Thorough planning helps to reduce fear, anxiety, and loss during disasters and helps reduce the negative impact of the emergency. An effective emergency plan takes into account the best- and worst-case scenarios and prepares for both possibilities.
According to the Head Start Emergency Preparedness Manual, there are six steps to developing an effective emergency plan. Begin by identifying which emergencies are most likely to affect your program and examine your program’s capacity to manage them.
Next, organize an action plan, searching for weaknesses or oversights in. From the action plan, develop an emergency preparedness plan, and from there, an action-based checklist.
Your final step is to assess what would happen in the impact stage if an emergency occurred at your childcare program. As you plan, look at the systems in your program (communication, fiscal, human resources, program planning, record keeping, etc.) and how each system could best be managed in the event of an emergency.
Evacuation or Shelter-In-Place
In some emergencies, staff and children may need to evacuate the facility; after evacuation, they may need to move to another location. In other situations, they may remain in the facility for the duration of the emergency (shelter-in-place). Childcare providers need to be prepared for any scenario.
Rapid Evacuation Regular evacuation drills are an important part of emergency preparation. The Caring for Our Children standards recommend that childcare programs develop a written plan for reporting (i.e., alarm system) and evacuating the childcare facility in the event there is structural damage to the facility or it otherwise becomes unsafe for children and staff.
The standards also suggest that areas prone to natural disasters practice evacuation drills on a regular schedule. Tornado drills should be practiced monthly during tornado season, and flood evacuation drills should be performed before the flood season. Earthquake drills should occur every six months, and hurricane drills should be implemented annually.
During evacuation drills, a daily class roster should be used to account for all children and staff. The roster should be checked by the staff member designated for that responsibility. Maintaining safe exits is essential to a rapid evacuation.
Recommendations in Caring for Our Children specify that each building or structure should have a minimum of two exits on different sides of the building. The exits should open to a space at ground level. For basements that are used in family childcare homes, one exit should lead directly outside. Exits should be unobstructed to allow a rapid, safe evacuation.
For facilities that provide care for children with physical disabilities, all steps and exits for evacuation should have ramps that are approved by the building inspector. Children with ambulatory disabilities should be located on the ground floor. If that is not possible, there should be specific plans for how the child would be evacuated if an emergency occurred.
Make sure your exit routes and plans are in compliance with licensing regulations, and with other requirements such as accreditation criteria.
Alternative Location It is important to identify a safe alternative site that is feasible to use in the event of an emergency that requires relocation. Designate staff members who have the authority to call for such an evacuation.
Make sure all exits are accessible and clearly marked. If your childcare program is located in a building with other tenants, coordinate the evacuation plan with them.
Shelter in Place If it is safer to stay where you are, secure your shelter-in-place and determine the safest space within your facility. Depending on the emergency, you may need to seal the area to protect against contaminated air or go outside of the building. Thinking through all of the possibilities beforehand will help you plan for any situation.
The Caring For Our Children standards recommend maintaining a 48-hour supply of food and water for each child and staff member, particularly in areas that are prone to natural disasters. The Head Start Emergency Preparedness Manual suggests stocking foods such as ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, and vegetables; high-energy foods, like crackers, granola bars, and trail mix; and foods for infants and children or staff with special dietary needs. Remember to include a manual can opener in your supplies.
It is also important to help children remain calm and feel secure. In case of evacuation to a different location, it is helpful to have familiar items for children, such as favorite books or crayons and paper. Being prepared to tell stories or sing songs requires no packing!
Effective emergency planning will enable you to handle a crisis situation and continue to provide safe, high quality childcare. Review your emergency plans regularly so you will be ready in the event of an emergency. Practice evacuation drills on a regular basis, and make sure you have adequate supplies of food and water. Look for ways that you can provide solace and reassurance to the children in your care in the event of an emergency.
Marna Holland, PhD
Asheville City Preschools, Asheville, NC
Caring for Our Children, National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-of-Home, Child Care, 2nd Ed., www.nrckids.org
Child Care Facilities Emergency Planning Tools, Cumberland County PA, www.ccpa.net/index.aspx?NID=84
Childcare Resources for Disasters & Emergencies, National Child Care Information Center, nccic.acf.hhs.gov/emergency/index.cfm
Disaster Planning Materials for CCR&Rs and Child Care Providers, National Association of Child Care Resource
& Referral Agencies, www.naccrra.org/disaster
Emergency Preparedness, North Carolina Division of Child Care, ncchildcare.dhhs.state.nc.us/providers/pv_emergency.asp