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Is Your University Prepared for a Disaster?

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By sharing ideas and experiences, university emergency management teams are making sure they're as prepared as possible for an on-campus disaster.

By sharing ideas and experiences, university emergency management teams are making sure they're as prepared as possible for an on-campus disaster.

They're connecting on the Disaster Resilient University listserv, networking with other emergency managers and researching best practices in emergency management. And whether they face an earthquake, a shooting or a tornado, the best emergency management programs work together with campus and community stakeholders during the planning process.


Learn from others

The University of Central Florida is trying to improve its emergency management plans and procedures by looking at what other universities are doing.

Professor Naim Kapucu sent an online survey to more than 450 members on the Disaster Resilient University listserv, which is hosted by the University of Oregon Emergency Management Program. He also sent the survey to universities that received a 2008 Emergency Management for Higher Education grant or were part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Resistant University initiative.

In the results published this month, 13 percent of the 160 respondents said they were confident that their universities qualified as disaster resilient, and about 18 percent said they agreed that their universities qualified as disaster resilient. A consensus definition of disaster resilient doesn't exactly exist, but Kapucu defines it this way:

“It’s more proactive and having an implicit, explicit cultural preparedness on campuses," Kapucu said. "So we’re not waiting until a disaster happens. We use training, we use exercises, we use constant communication with students, faculty, and staff at the university setting to make sure they’re prepared.”

Nearly 75 percent of survey respondents said they had significant support from university leadership. Kapucu hasn't completed his analysis of the results yet, but mentioned that a University of Central Florida advisory committee will create a framework for a comprehensive emergency management plan based on the findings. He said that ideally universities would collaborate on a national master document that identifies which campuses have detailed plans and who to contact for more information on them.


Start planning

To prepare campuses for an emergency, university staff members need to look at emergency management standards and determine what they have already done as well as what they need to do, said André Le Duc, director of the emergency management program at the University of Oregon and the Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience.

“The best takeoff point for a campus is really to get its head into the standards and do that self assessment to figure out what it has and how it would bring it all together," Le Duc said.

Those standards come from the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the National Fire Protection Association and the Emergency Management Accreditation Program. They are required if universities want to receive federal grants to help them recover from a disaster.

Keeping business going is a big part of emergency management programs because universities don't really have an option to close, unlike city and county governments, said Le Duc, who is also the vice chair of the Universities and Colleges Caucus of the International Association of Emergency Managers.

In the three-year-old emergency management program at the University of Oregon, Le Duc is creating more comprehensive mitigation plans, conducting a business systems analysis, assessing risks, and understanding the connections between infrastructure, buildings, instruction and research.

For example, he's assessing campus rooms to figure out which ones depends on electricity, steam and water, and how they can protect those sources.

“The beauty of a campus is you can actually do much more enhanced risk assessment work than you could, say, at a community because spatially it's a small area," Le Duc said.


Plan, prepare constantly

As with many large institutions, different people in various areas of the campus don't look at emergency response the same way. That's why universities need to take an enterprisewide look at what they're doing and coordinate with different departments on campus to form a strategic plan.

“Where a lot of campuses have been able to excel in emergency management is through a unified program where it isn’t that you develop a new emergency management program and then that’s the end-all-be-all," Le Duc said. "It’s more that they serve as that senior administration to coordinate all the components, assure that nothing's falling through the gaps, yet set forward, 'OK, these are the areas we need to improve,' and then do it kind of through a team effort."

And part of that collaboration and coordination is building relationships with everyone on the team, said Brendan McCluskey, chair of the Universities and Colleges Caucus of IAEM. In the majority of cases across the country, universities will have outside people coming in to respond to an emergency, and involving them up front is critical, said McCluskey, who is also the executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Medicine & Dentistry in New Jersey.

“You don’t want to meet people for the first time when there’s an actual emergency," he said. "You want to have them involved with this process, with the planning, with the preparedness before the emergency.”

Planning shouldn't just happen once or twice a year, either. Virginia Tech tries to develop a culture of preparedness at the individual level, then builds that up to a community preparedness level, said Michael Mulhare, director of emergency management.

“Planning is very dynamic, and that’s why it needs to be something you do all the time," Mulhare said. “You can’t just do an exercise or take out your plan and dust it off every once in a while or when there’s an incident. You need to practice, you need to prepare, you need to reassess and change your plans as needed.”



But developing that culture isn't always easy. Just as the University of Georgia trains 8,000 people, they may graduate, transfer or take a job elsewhere, and the emergency management team has to start all over again with the next class, said Steven Harris, director of the Office of Security & Emergency Preparedness. He's constantly trying to find new ways to convince the 50,000 faculty, staff and student community on campus to prepare for any type of disaster, whether it's a building fire or a tornado.

“One of the biggest challenges is educating faculty, staff and students and convincing them that it’s important to prepare for emergencies," Harris said. "They have a very busy schedule academically and socially, and many of them have limited life experiences in dealing with emergencies, so it’s a hard sell to them unless something happens and puts it in the forefront of their objectives.”

For Virginia Tech, that moment came on April 16, 2007. A student killed 32 people and wounded others before taking his own life. The incident is the deadliest peacetime shooting in U.S. history by one person.

The shooting prompted campuses throughout the United States to use alert systems, particularly text message alert systems so they could mass notify a large campus community of an emergency, said Mulhare, from Virginia Tech. The university was in the process of developing an alert system before the shooting that was scheduled to roll out that September.

“After April 16, there was just a proliferation of those types of systems that went in to try to provide a way of mass notifying a large campus community," Mulhare said, "which is a very challenging task.”

Virginia Tech has used the system several times and conducts silent tests quite often to make sure it works. At least once a semester, it does an active test.

In 2006, the University of Georgia started using UGAlert to notify faculty, staff and students of campuswide emergencies that required them to take immediate action, Harris said. While some universities allow everyone to voluntarily sign up, the University of Georgia requires people on campus to sign up, though they can opt out.

“We felt like we were a little ahead of the game because we had our system implemented prior to Virginia Tech and before the rush to get an emergency notification system in,” he said.


Work together

Having a plan in place is not nearly as important as the process that goes into making a plan, McCluskey said. Anyone can sit down and write a plan, but unless key stakeholders are involved in the planning, they won't understand what the plan means for them and what their roles and responsibilities are.

Those stakeholders include public safety, environmental health and safety, and emergency management department personnel, though not many campuses have an emergency management department. And in addition to those departments, residential life, student affairs, academic affairs, housing, administration and outside responders need to understand what their roles are too.

"By having them involved in the process, they’ll know what the whole purpose of the plan and what the outline of the plan is so that when they don’t have time to go get the plan and read it, they can start to do things based on the plan,” McCluskey said.

At the University of Georgia, students, faculty and staff volunteer to go through an eight-week training program and become part of a Campus Community Emergency Response Team that assists with operations, including search and rescue and damage assessments. Virginia Tech also uses the same program.

But even with careful planning and preparation, an emergency can strike that will stretch preparedness levels and resources.

“I feel like we have a robust program, and we have good relationships and good plans in place," Harris said. "But there’s always situations out there that you may or may not think about that can certainly trip you up or can certainly test your resources and test your abilities.”


Source: Converge

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