Codes Can Kill – Update on Why the Use of Codes in School Crisis Plans Can Cause Death and Serious Injury

I recently posted a blog on why it can be dangerous to use codes in school emergency preparedness plans.  For example, many schools still use “code red”, “code blue”, “Code Yellow” etc. without any plain text instructions such as “emergency lockdown” to clarify what life and death action steps should be implemented.  This approach has failed in numerous actual crisis events at schools and fails badly when we conduct crisis simulations in one-on-one settings to test how well staff can react to high stress situations.  This also goes against the founding principles of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as well as the Incident Command System (ICS).

For example, we were recently testing a large urban school district’s emergency plans as part of a school safety, security and emergency preparedness audit requested by the district’s superintendent.  As part of our assessment, we utilized our First 30 Seconds evaluation set, running 36 employees through more than 200 school crisis situations.  Each employee was shown a short orientation video to explain the process to them before responding to three video school crisis scenarios and three scripted school crisis scenarios.  This approach is consistent with the research of Dr. Gary Klien, David Grossman, Bruce Siddle and other respected experts in how the human mind and body work under life and death stress. 

This is similar to methods used for the past three decades for law enforcement and military personnel.  These scenarios were used to gauge how well individual employees could make the most critical life and death decisions before they are given instruction by a supervisor.  This is a far more accurate predictor of how someone will respond than a typical fire or lockdown drill because each employee is forced to make decisions rather than to simply practice a protocol.  While traditional drills are extremely important and beneficial, they do not induce decision making unless they are specifically designed to do so.

The district being evaluated has completed a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Grant (REMS) and has developed plans utilizing a series of codes using colors but no plain language instructions.  For example, code red is an emergency lockdown and code yellow indicates a preventive lockdown.  Extensive efforts have been made to train staff on the color codes and monthly drills are designed to reinforce them.  However, as we typically see, testing using the scenarios revealed that many employees got confused by the color code system when trying to determine which protocol to follow, often yielding an incorrect response.  In some instances, the results were alarming. For example, two building level administrators implemented lockdowns when faced with a tornado because they got confused about which color code to use.   This means that the administrators ordered all staff and students to move into classrooms and lock the doors rather than to move to severe weather shelter areas and assume the tornado shelter position.

As Lt. Col Dave Grossman says, “when faced with a crisis, we do not rise to the occasion, but rather we sink to the level of our training.” This means that the employees who were tested are likely to perform worse, rather than better, under the stress of an actual tornado headed right towards their school.   

When you conduct 200 crisis simulations at a variety of schools with a wide range of employees, and you see staff repeatedly struggle with which code to use for the situation, it becomes readily apparent how deadly it can be to rely on codes to save human lives.  Codes can be one of the weakest links in an otherwise sound school crisis plan.  If you are using codes to move people to safety in your schools, please consider the potential consequences of this approach.


About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.