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Bracing for Disaster

No safety program can stop every campus threat, but proper preparation can mean the difference between life and death. CT looks at the three key components of a successful program.

A freak blizzard, a mentally ill and armed student, a record-breaking flood. No matter how idyllic your campus may feel, no matter how cocooned the ivory tower, disaster can strike. It can happen to you. Even if you're prepared, such an event will be an appalling ordeal. If your campus is unprepared, though, it comes like a sucker punch, potentially turning a crisis into a tragedy of unimagined proportions--and causing reverberations that will be felt for years.

Obviously, it's impossible to guard your campus against every threat, but you can be ready to react and respond. An effective disaster program is built on three cornerstones: developing a comprehensive safety plan; testing the plan; and deploying the technology to prepare for and respond to a crisis. Finding the money to pay for all of this could be considered the fourth cornerstone, but the truth is that funding tends to become available as a result of solid planning and testing.

#1: Make a Plan
Without a comprehensive plan, your program is dead in the water--just try to win a grant to buy equipment without one. A campus-safety plan works out the who, what, when, where, and how of emergency response. A well-rounded planning effort takes into account four aspects of every emergency:

  • Risk assessment: Answers the question of how likely it is that a given emergency will happen, and lays out the assumptions that are used in planning a response.
  • Prevention and mitigation: Addresses what steps need to be taken before an identified emergency happens, to prevent it from having an impact on people, assets, and operations.
  • Emergency response: Maps out what the school needs to do when an emergency occurs.
  • Recovery: Guides operations and the resumption of business, once the immediate emergency demands are over.

According to Sharlene Mielke, coordinator for disaster recovery and business continuity at Northwestern University (IL), the whole point of the planning process is to eliminate guesswork and provide an organized, considered approach to all aspects of the emergency response.

At Northwestern, several people are responsible for plan development and training, which requires a level of investment that is not feasible at all institutions, especially smaller campuses. Yet Mielke believes that all schools need to find some way to focus on the issue of campus safety: If it's not through dedicated personnel, a well-structured campus-safety committee can handle the job. For one, it shows that the institution isn't in denial, and also sends a message of commitment to the entire campus community. It's a big mistake to believe that something bad "is not going to happen here," says Mielke. "Once you overcome that block as an institution, you're able to get things done quicker and easier and faster with a lot more calm. You don't have to create that sense of urgency to get out of the starting block."

Northwestern's emergency plan runs 50 pages. Broad, institution-wide plans feed into individual documents relevant to specific buildings and departments. For faculty and staff in these areas, the plans are heavy on detail, listing phone numbers and laying out procedures, such as who can terminate an evacuation in process or what a person calling 911 during a shooter scenario should say to the dispatcher. "It covers pretty much everything from the moment of the crisis onward and drives our immediate response," notes Mielke.

David Burns, director of the Emergency Management Office at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a slightly different philosophy. He believes the campus-safety plan should be "broad and simple" and used to identify common principles. If the plan is extremely rigid, he believes, it will have single points of failure, "so it only takes one mistake to make your plan fall completely apart."

"Every disaster is going to displace people, create mass casualties, mass fatalities," Burns explains. "It's going to create situations where you need to displace and evacuate people, which creates a sheltering issue, which causes need for medical treatment, food, water, sanitation. These are common characteristics of every disaster. Your plan should focus on those. That's how you keep it simple, and that's how experienced emergency managers address their plans."

#2: Test, Test, Test
The planning process is just the starting point, of course. Once a plan is developed, it needs continual testing and revision. This includes conducting exercises to help participants become comfortable with the roles they will play during an actual emergency.

"Adults learn more by doing than reading," says Mielke. "An exercise breeds plan familiarity." It also exposes holes in the plan. "The goal of testing and exercising is not to find out if it works, but to determine how it doesn't," she tells people who attend her campus-safety presentations.

UCLA's Burns concurs. He spends a lot of his time working with staff and running small drills. "Those are the things that really matter in a crisis," he declares. "You program people to respond by habit. That's the important piece. If you can't handle little things, then forget the big stuff."

The value of practice was vindicated recently at Northwestern when the campus faced February's great Midwest blizzard. In that event, the threat was determined to be "global," meaning that it encompassed the entire campus. Under Northwestern's planning protocols, such a threat required the university's Threat Assessment Group (TAG) to kick into gear. TAG's focus is to monitor the situation so that "we can try to get ahead of what our response might be," explains Mielke.

In the run-up to the blizzard, representatives from public relations, facilities, IT, campus police, the executive offices, student services, and university services all gathered--in person or by conference call--to apprise one another of what was happening in their particular areas.

"We were so prepared, so ready," recalls Mielke. "We had people waiting in the wings, ready to spring into action. Everybody gave a report of the situation since the last meeting, and we were having meetings about every three hours: 'OK, this is where we are, and this is what we plan to do next.'"

In a nutshell, communication was key. As it happens, the blizzard had little impact on Northwestern. "We were lucky," notes Mielke. "We didn't have any major effects. No major power outages, just some minor ones. Nothing extraordinary." In fact, during the third-worst snowstorm ever recorded in Chicago, 500 Northwestern students were having a snowball fight.

Testing an emergency plan may also be the most effective way to secure funding. At UCLA, Burns used an exercise to build a business case for upgrading the school's small emergency operations center (EOC).

In January 2010, the university hosted the Quake 2010 Functional EOC Exercise to test its earthquake-preparedness plan. During that event, UCLA simulated what all emergency personnel would be doing eight hours after a major earthquake. Suddenly, 40 people from multiple divisions were crammed into a small space and experienced the inadequacy of the air conditioning and electrical systems; how out of date the furnishings were; how poorly communications worked; and how insufficient two televisions were for monitoring media reports.

"As we were gathering information, folks were writing it on a whiteboard," explains Burns. "That takes time. Then, you had to carry it to another room next-door or up several floors and rewrite it. By the time you had copied this information from whiteboard to whiteboard, 20, 30, 40, maybe 45 minutes had passed. The information you had posted was old and maybe outdated." These delays really stretched the patience of the emergency responders participating in the exercise.

To compound the problem, it took two hours to set the room up to be ready for an emergency.

"I can sit in my chair as emergency manager and say we've got a problem," Burns declares. "But when I put the people in the room, they experience the problem. I don't have to say a word. After the exercise, I had 40 people who had completely bought in and said, 'This has to be fixed. This isn't going to work.'"

By July, seven university departments had put funds into an EOC upgrade. EOC staff began training on operations in the new center in November. It was ready for duty by January 2011.

In the event of an emergency now, laptops are yanked from a mobile cart and plugged into each seat. When somebody checks in with Burns at the door, he hands them an assignment and a mobile voice over IP phone, and they can get to work. Every position has a good view of the whole room, which now has wall-sized whiteboards and eight large displays, all of which are wired to monitor TV news or can be used for internal coordination. The room can be fully operational in 15 minutes. When there's no emergency, it pulls double duty as a staff-training facility.

Not all institutions can afford the $10,000 that UCLA spent on its comprehensive safety drill, but this doesn't mean they can't garner that experience elsewhere. Burns believes that schools can learn plenty--and use the results to make a business case for funding--by participating in exercises staged by other organizations, such as law enforcement, airports, and hospitals.

"When an agency is putting on an exercise, it creates opportunities for partners in the area to tag along and share resources," he explains. "They make the invitation. You share responsibilities."

When all is said and done, though, nothing can substitute for your own on-campus exercise. Exercises aren't difficult to do, says Burns. It just takes planning time--about three to four months. "You can't just say, 'We're going to do this in two weeks,'" he notes. "You have to have lead time. You have to write your message-sequence list. You have to vet it. You have to develop your objectives." In Burns' opinion, the best source of training materials and templates is the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program, available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Through it all, advises Burns, remember that the point of exercises is to "do a gap analysis, to find the cracks and problems before a real event happens." If you don't find problems, "you're not exercising hard enough."

#3: Procurement
Communications lie at the heart of any emergency-response system. As the experiences of both UCLA and Northwestern show, planning and testing efforts revolve primarily around coordinating responders and maintaining up-to-date information. If you haven't already developed a comprehensive safety plan, though, obtaining funds for this equipment--either from your institution or via a grant--is going to be a long shot.

At Northwestern, emergency communication channels come in multiple forms. When the campus community needs to be alerted, notifications can go out via text, outdoor alert system, web pages, bulk e-mail, automated phone and voicemail, in-building fire alarms, the campus radio station, two-way radios, local media, departmental phone trees, and even word of mouth, handmade signs, and runners.

The latest item on Mielke's shopping list is a tool to maintain digital versions of the institution's emergency-response plans--continuity, communications, evacuation, and other documents--that need to be accessed quickly when a disaster occurs. The expenditure has been approved by management; the procurement is still under way.

The array of communications mechanisms at UCLA is fairly comparable to that of Northwestern. "We have 15 resources we use to communicate with the campus, but we're still not where we want to be," Burns says. "I'm going to put another siren on top of a building. That process takes four months to plan and a month to construct. We're still working on our EOC systems. Those will take a year to develop and fully mature."

Burns would also like to improve his indoor mass-warning capabilities by adding indoor signs that are both audible and have strobes to meet ADA requirements. But the cost of installing these signs on multiple floors in 175 facilities is estimated between $2 million and $4 million.

UCLA is also battling to fill in coverage gaps. "We have rooms without cellular capabilities," explains Burns. "If you go into a room, you'll get zero bars on your phone. Those rooms have to be wired for Power over Ethernet. If they don't already have backup-generator capacity, then they won't work when electrical failures occur. All that infrastructure has to be built in." As an example of the financial challenge he faces, Burns estimates that it could cost $500,000 to extend full coverage to a single 20-story building.

Even so, Burns still carries a wish list of components he'd like to add to his campus-safety arsenal. When an emergency hits, he says, "everybody will come in and say, 'What can I do to help, and what will it cost?'" At that moment, he'll be able to pull out his list. "I'm always ready. Anybody who is worth their salt, they have it waiting."

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