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 SDCOE, County OES, Fire, and Law Enforcement Agencies Announce Plan to Help Keep Schools Safer During Wildfire Emergencies

With the threat of wildfires in San Diego County now year-round, The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE), San Diego County Office of Emergency Services (OES), and local fire and law enforcement agencies are making sure that schools are as prepared as possible for a wildfire event. 

Leaders from these agencies and organizations gathered today to announce the release of the School Protection and Evacuation Plan (SPEP). The SPEP is meant to help school officials and public safety agencies coordinate preparedness efforts to protect life, property, and critical infrastructure at a site in advance of a wildfire, and to clearly outline critical procedures and protocols for use during a wildfire emergency.

“This planning effort was born out of the simple recognition that a need existed,” said Holly Porter, director, Office of Emergency Services. “Our region’s first responders and public safety agencies are always looking for ways to improve and realized that a planning template would be valuable to guide the considerations and advance actions schools can take before our next big fire occurs.”

Created by OES and based on Community Wildfire Protection Plans, the SPEP is to be used countywide to facilitate discussion between school, district, law, and fire officials with the goal of preparing and empowering districts to make necessary decisions to protect students and staff.

Every school has a safety plan for emergencies that is updated annually and includes general preparedness information. The SPEP serves as an addendum to a school’s existing safety plan, pulling information specific to preparation and planning for a wildfire event into one cohesive plan.

The SPEP includes an evacuation decision support tool, spells out evacuation terminology used by first responders such as warning and order, and asks school administrators to consider topics such as transportation agreements, parent pick-up procedures, communication, and alternate re-unification sites. 

“Keeping our students safe is a team effort, and I’m grateful we have the support of our local public safety agencies,” said County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold. “I invite parents to be a part of this work, too, by learning about the safety plans at their children’s schools and how schools will communicate in the event of an emergency.”

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob agreed that educating parents is an important part of emergency preparedness. 

“Too often what happens where there is an emergency situation, such as a fire, that breaks out in an area near a school, parents panic, and they want to go quickly to school to pick get their kids. That is the wrong thing to do,” Jacob said. “And that is why this plan is so important. To educate families, the teachers, and all those involved to make sure that they either stay in place or have a safe place to evacuate.”

Creating the SPEP was a collaborative process among multiple agencies, including SDCOE, OES, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, California Department of Forestry/CAL Fire, and the California State Parks, and the process for customizing the plan at the school level is also meant to encourage collaboration between schools/districts and public safety agencies. 

“This is a collaborative approach that includes dialogue and sharing of common values and common needs,” said Don Butz, chief of the Lakeside Fire Protection. “By participating in the planning process, school administrators will become familiar with the terminology used by local law and fire officials when dealing with an evacuation. Having common knowledge will allow us to all have a common picture.”

A common picture that includes keeping all students, staff, parents, and school facilities safe in the event of a wildfire emergency.