Survey: Better Parent-School Planning Needed in Disaster Preparedness

September 16, 2008

In a disaster such as an earthquake or terrorist attack, nearly two-thirds of U.S. parents would disregard orders to evacuate and would rush to pick up their kids from school, according to a recent survey.

The survey by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Children’s Health Fund found that 63 percent of parents would ignore disaster plans and pick up their children, possibly hindering rescue efforts by adding to traffic congestion.

The authors of the study, released on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, said that despite years of government efforts to enhance disaster preparedness, schools need to do more to plan for disasters and parents need to be made aware of the plans.

“We should be elevating the priority of disaster planning in the schools,” said Irwin Redlener, associate dean for public health preparedness at Columbia and president of the Children’s Health Fund.

The survey by Columbia’s center for disaster preparedness has been administered annually since 2002 by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Just 44 percent of the U.S. residents surveyed this year said they have all or some of the basic elements of a disaster preparedness plan, including food, water, a flashlight with extra batteries and a meeting place in case of evacuation.

Among parents of school-age children, 45 percent said they do not know the location to which their children would be evacuated as part of the school’s disaster plan.

When asked what they would be most likely to do if given an order to evacuate during school hours, just 31 percent of parents said they would evacuate their homes or workplaces as ordered and reunite with their children later.

“I think this is instinctive for many people, myself included,” Redlener said.

But he said that a disaster such as an accident at a nuclear power plant could cause nightmarish traffic jams that would be made worse if parents all rushed to get their children.

The federal Department of Homeland Security has allocated billions of dollars to help state and local governments set up disaster contingency plans.

But Redlener said more needs to be done to assist school districts in setting up disaster plans. He estimated that only about 20 percent of schools have adequate evacuation plans.

“There should be an outcry from parents to push their schools and their school districts to develop a plan that makes sense,” he said.

He said schools’ parent-teacher associations should hold meetings to go over disaster plans.

“Parents have to be much more engaged in the development of and the understanding of the plans,” Redlener said.

The telephone survey of 1,579 adults was conducted between July 25 and Aug. 9.

The margin of error for the entire survey was 2.5 percentage points. The margin of error for the subset of households with children was 4 percentage points.

Parents said Thursday they were not surprised by the finding that most of them would disregard evacuation orders and pick up their children.

“Your natural instinct is to go to the school,” said Todd Sedmak, of Falls Church, Va., who has three school-age sons. “In my view, the schools and the school systems need to have better coordination with parents about planning for disasters.”

Diana Ennen, of Margate, Fla., is the author of “The Home Office Recovery Plan: Disaster Preparedness for Your Home-Based Business” and a mother of three.

“As a mom, you wouldn’t be able to keep me away from picking up my children,” she said in an e-mail. “My first instinct would be to get them at all costs. I would literally run the entire distance to get them. I believe most parents would feel the same.”


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