On Sept. 11, 2001, staff at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York contemplated evacuating their Midtown offices as they watched the Twin Towers collapse on TV.
“We made the decision to stay in place,” recalled Barbara Kessel, the BJE’s director of administration.
A phone caller a short time later who seemed to be speaking Arabic prompted reconsideration. “But we didn’t know where to go to,” said Kessel.
Should an emergency take place today, she said, the employees would now carry out a well-prepared plan to evacuate to a predetermined location in the neighborhood.
“This is the time to give thought to where you will evacuate to if you have to evacuate your building,” Kessel told several dozen representatives of Jewish schools and agencies at a recent forum organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council and hosted by BJE.
The agencies and schools will have ample opportunity to consider their evacuation plans through a program that is part of the community’s continuing reaction to 9-11 and the ongoing threat of terrorism.
JCRC, in close cooperation with the New York Fire Department, is coordinating a series of safety and security workshops that address emergencies of many types. The group, an umbrella of 62 community organizations, also is encouraging its members to submit a written evacuation plan to be evaluated by fire officials.
“We will offer suggestions on how to better implement those plans,” said JCRC associate executive director David Pollock.
The JCRC will also issue participants a certificate that could reduce insurance costs, and later this year will publish with the United Jewish Communities an emergency planning manual for Jewish organizations.
“It’s very important that people get the training and knowledge they need to have about disasters and what their impacts are,” said Thomas Sunderland, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who is working as a consultant for the JCRC. “Knowledge, combined with judgment and training, leads to good decision-making.”
At the Oct. 22 seminar, Sunderland said among the more crucial decisions faced by administrators, whether during a fire, a natural disaster or a security breach, is whether to evacuate or “shelter in place,” because conditions outside are worse.
“The thing to consider as you go is, are you jumping from the frying pan to the fire?” he said.
Officials from the FDNY’s Fire and Life Safety Office stressed the importance of detection systems, drills and the preparation of “go kits” containing emergency supplies needed for coping with abnormal situations. School officials raised such questions as what to do when smaller children who need help on stairways slow down an evacuation, with older waiting children behind them.
The suggested answer: Try using separate stairways for the toddlers, or time drills with the preschoolers first, then last, to see which way is quicker.
Some administrators raised the issue of how to deal with parents who want to take their children home during an emergency or the threat of an emergency. Some schools have set up an emergency hotline to avoid tying up regular phone lines during a crisis. The hotline would contain advice about whether to pick up children.
The next session is scheduled for Dec. 6.
After the program Susan Walker, financial director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, said that while most of the information was not new, “the networking was very helpful. We’re all helping each other.”