ELVIS and TIGERS and PINK CADILLACS — OH MY! Covert Communications for School Emergencies

Have you ever wondered what pink Cadillacs have to do with school lockdowns? Well, you are about to find out…Whether from a police chase in the community, a suspicious person wandering into the school, or a horrific active shooter emergency, schools have to be prepared to quickly implement protective measures, such as a lockdown.

Photo found at: Pink-GM Vehicles

Secret Codes: In the 1990s, schools that had emergency lockdown plans often used secret codes to alert their staff to lockdown. At one school the administrator would turn on the public address system and say, “Attention staff, there is a tiger loose in the building. I repeat there is a tiger loose in the building.” Or, “Would the owner of the pink Cadillac please move your car from the loading zone?” At another school, the secret code was, “Elvis is in the building, I repeat, Elvis is in the building.”

Universal Codes: By the early 2000s, many schools moved away from these secretive codes that were difficult to remember to more universal codes that would accommodate two types of lockdowns: a low-level and a full-fledged lockdown. A low-level lockdown is used to secure students in their classrooms while instruction continues. This limits movement at school while an emergency situation is being assessed or managed. A full-fledged lockdown requires that everyone is quickly secured in lockable rooms, on the floor, and quiet. It is used to shut down the entire campus due to an imminent threat of danger. Two universal lockdown codes emerged during this period: Code Yellow and Code Red. The colors made sense. They seemed intuitive. Yellow is associated with caution and red with danger. Yellow indicated a low-level lockdown, and Red a full-fledged lockdown.

A Variety of Lockdown Codes: By the year 2010, school lockdown codes evolved to try to accommodate the National Incident Management System’s ideal of using ‘plain language’ and ‘common terminology’ during emergencies. Here are some of the current lockdown codes used in our nation’s schools.

Today, there is no national standardized terminology for school lockdowns. School leaders, along with their local law enforcement agencies, determine what to call lockdowns. Does it matter what we call lockdowns? That is a good question. When someone is under extreme stress, like in emergencies, they can have diminished capacity to process complex information or accomplish straightforward tasks. Having simple and easy to understand lockdown terms and procedures help reduce confusion, and empower students and staff to overcome those natural stress responses. While some of these lockdown codes are better than others, no matter which terms schools use, training and regular practice is essential to help school students and staff to be able to perform the lockdown procedure when it really counts. To dive in deep and really learn the pros and cons of various lockdown codes, read the paper, “Lockdown Terminology in K-12 Schools: Why It Is Okay To Use Codes And Which Codes Are Best.”

Now, let’s take an ‘Inside the Yellow Tape’ view at what these two types of lockdowns really look like in the school setting.

Low-level Lockdown - All Doors Locked, Students Stay in Classrooms: In a low-level lockdown, students are secured in their classrooms, doors are closed and locked, everyone is accounted for and instruction continues in the classroom. Depending on the situation, the school principal may allow movement in one section of the campus while another section is off limits, or limited movement may be very controlled and allowed only with an escort. Depending on the reason for the lockdown, visitors may or may not be allowed to enter the school.

This type of lockdown could be useful if a student has a medical emergency, such as a seizure, in the hallway. The goal is to provide privacy for the student, reduce trauma among bystanders, and clear the way for first responders. It may also be used if the school receives a report of a police chase in the community that does not yet involve imminent danger of violence at school. It is sometimes used when school leaders learn of a threat that is not yet substantiated. It allows for time and physical space to deal with the emergency situation while students are secured in their classroom and instruction continues.

Once a school is in this type of lockdown, with everyone immediately accounted for and secured, the principal has the flexibility to quickly transition the school into a more complete lockdown if the incident escalates. This is important because emergency situations are dynamic and can change suddenly. In life threatening situations, being able to quickly move into a full lockdown is essential.

Full-fledged Lockdown - Everything Locked. Everyone Secured, On the Floor and Quiet: This complete lockdown is used to quickly take protective measures when there is an imminent threat of danger. Everyone immediately gets into a lockable space. They are to lock doors, turn off lights, get down on the floor away from view of windows, and maintain complete quiet. Teachers are to make their space look and sound like it is unoccupied; they are not to admit anyone into their room once it is locked. This type of lockdown may be used when there is a dangerous person on or near the campus; a credible or time-sensitive threat; an act of violence such as a shooting, stabbing, or hostage situation; or a fatality on campus.

Variation - Barricade: Some schools take this complete lockdown a step further when there is an active shooter situation. They teach staff and students to secure their rooms by pushing bookcases, desks and other furniture in front of their classroom door to barricade and essentially slow down an intruder. This barricade measure is sometimes utilized when classrooms do not have lockable doors. Some schools do this even for classrooms that are locked. (Note — there are some fire-safety/evacuation issues with this practice, so be sure to collaborate with your local fire marshal if your school is considering this strategy.)

Shelter-in-Place — NOT! So what is a Shelter-in-Place? Well, it is NOT the same thing as a lockdown. There are many meanings associated with the phrase Shelter-in-Place. Sometimes Shelter-in-Place is associated with responses to weather related hazards, such as taking shelter from particular storms, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Others associate it with disaster sheltering, often coordinated by the American Red Cross. Recently, the phrase Shelter-in-Place has been used in place of lockdown, particularly in high-profile community emergencies. This was the case in the Boston Marathon bombing and when shots were fired at the nation’s capital and people were ordered to shelter-in-place.

Officially, however, federal agencies such as OSHA, FEMA, CDC, and the American Red Cross have identified the term Shelter-in-Place as the emergency protective action related to a hazardous materials spill. In fact, the U.S. Department of the Army and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security even developed a 55-page Shelter-in-Place Protective Action Guidebook for airborne toxic chemical hazards. Shelter-in-Place responses include sealing your room with plastic sheeting and tape and turning off heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, as shown in this image.

Here are two examples of how schools use the term Shelter-in-Place: Riverside County Schools Shelter-in-Place plans are designed to “protect students and staff in the event of potential exposure to a dangerous chemical that could be released through an industrial accident, a chemical spill, a break in a natural gas pipeline, materials transported through our community, or a terrorist attack.” Lincoln County School District, on the Oregon Coast, takes the traditional definition of Shelter-in-Place a bit further. Rather than limiting the definition to chemical hazards, other contaminants are also included, such as “excessive smoke from a wildfire, a swarm of bees outside, volcanic ash in the air, etc. [stating] it may be necessary to temporarily seal off school occupants from the outside to prevent exposure to a contaminant in the air. This is called a Shelter-in-Place and includes taking immediate shelter inside; shutting down HVAC systems (heating, ventilation, air conditioning); and sealing off windows, doors, vents, and other openings to outside air.” Watch their 6-minute school Shelter-in-Place video here.

There is a longstanding tradition and national standard of Shelter-in-Place being the official code for taking specific protective measures related to sealing off the environment due to a hazardous materials spill. Since the action steps for sealing a room are very different from the action steps for a lockdown, Shelter-in-Place is not an appropriate term to indicate a school lockdown.

Pink Cadillacs? Schools encounter many hazards and threats which require implementing lower and higher levels of lockdowns. School leaders and their law enforcement partners must choose lockdown terminology that works to reduce confusion in stressful emergency situations. Elvis, Tigers and Pink Cadillacs just do not cut it anymore. For more information about how to develop school lockdown plans and plans that address other hazards and threats, read the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, or visit the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (REMS).

That wraps up this Inside the Yellow Tape look at school lockdown codes and procedures. Join us again soon for another homeland security mystery revealed.

This article was written by Sue Graves, a member of Inside The Yellow Tape. Much of the content was taken from her research paper entitled, “Lockdown Terminology in K-12 Schools: Why It Is Okay To Use Codes And Which Codes Are Best.”