Written by Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
A new Tennessee law that requires day cares and schools to create detailed disaster response plans has garnered praise in a new national report by Save the Children.
The state was one of four that made changes in the past year and is now among 22 states receiving the advocacy group's highest rating for emergency preparedness.
With the new law in place, Tennessee now meets four national standards. Child care centers must keep written evacuation plans and plans to reunite families after a disaster. They must also maintain plans specifically for children with disabilities. And finally, all schools are now required to have disaster plans that cover multiple types of responses, including evacuation, shelter-in-place and lock-downs.
"I think it will give parents more of an at-ease mind to know the owner of a facility has taken the time to train," said Gary Stockton, emergency services coordinator with the Department of Human Services, which regulates child care facilities.
He said the new requirements, two years in the making, will make Tennessee better prepared than many other states.
The Save the Children report, "Unaccounted For: A National Report Card on Protecting Children in Disaster," found that 28 states don't mandate the four safeguards, which the group says could leave children vulnerable.
The group reports that some 68 million children spend weekdays separated from their parents.
In some places, the group found children went uncounted in shelters and that basic supplies were lacking. The agency pointed to a rash of tornadoes in Oklahoma in May, during which first responders could not reach children at child care centers because the state didn't have an official list of where they were located.
Disaster preparedness took on new urgency after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the presidentially appointed National Commission on Children and Disaster proposed new standards. As of 2009, only four states required child care centers to keep all of the suggested disaster plans.
The work of the commission prompted action in Tennessee, including in the 15-county Upper Cumberland area, east of Nashville. The region has known disaster, including in February 2008, when tornadoes damaged child care centers in Macon County.
In the years since, local and state agencies have collected shelter supplies, surveyed the readiness of more than 120 child care facilities, and trained child care professionals to know how to operate shelters.
"There was a wake-up call, that we had in our little community, that said, 'Maybe we're not as ready as we think we are,' " said Betty Vaudt, project manager with Upper Cumberland Childcare Resource and Referral at Tennessee Tech University. "We look at making sure they're safe, that if they go to a shelter they're well cared for there, and that the recovery process happens as well."
In a survey, Upper Cumberland officials found that 91 percent of child care facilities had written emergency plans. But only fire and tornado plans were included in all of them. What to do during other types of emergencies, such as flooding or extreme heat waves, wasn't always spelled out.