A group of faculty, staff and administrators spent some time recently considering possible worst-case scenarios for the University and asking “Are we ready?”
The eye-opening exercise was part of a special event on “Preparing for the Unexpected: Emergency Management Planning,” sponsored by Academic Affairs and BGSU’s Emergency Response Working Group. The group has been developing a comprehensive crisis plan for the University in coordination with campus offices and departments and local and regional organizations such as the Wood County Health Department and Emergency Management Services. The University Student Health Service also coordinates with the national Centers for Disease Control.
Helping guide the discussion was Dr. Joseph Morreale, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Pace University in New York City, whose downtown campus was directly in the danger zone of the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
“You have a very good team in place, and they are creating an emergency response plan,” Morreale told those at a luncheon following a morning workshop.
“Having a plan is the single most important step in dealing with a crisis,” he said, adding that most universities do not. Before 9/11, Pace was among those.
One of the hardest parts is convincing people that creating a plan is essential, he said. For example, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, much invaluable research stored on computers was lost because faculty did not have it backed up on home computers or other sites outside their universities.
“The most important thing is to prepare ahead of time. In an emergency, you have no time to think. You have to have everything in place and ready to go, and everybody has to know it.”
Each department and unit should consider in advance what it has to lose and begin to prepare accordingly, Morreale said.
Leadership is crucial in devising and communicating the crisis plan, but in an emergency, “everybody becomes a leader,” he said. In the case of Pace, on the morning of 9/11, the entire university leadership was at a conference in midtown Manhattan (which they later realized meant that had they been in the trade center as originally scheduled, Pace’s leadership would have been wiped out—something to consider when planning events). Communications were disrupted throughout the city. Luckily, back on the downtown campus, the head of facilities quickly realized that with the tremendous amount of smoke in the air, he should shut down the campus air conditioning system. “That single act saved lives and allowed our students to remain in the buildings,” Morreale said.
An important part of emergency preparedness is training and, with that, permission to act, he noted.
Even though the primary function of a university is education, it is almost like a city in the other functions it serves, such as food service and health care. “In an emergency, these services become more important,” he said. Depending on the type of crisis, any or all could be affected and thus must be included in the plan.
“A good plan must reach all the way down and all the way across the university,” Morreale said. It must take into account everything from natural to manmade disasters to illness, such as the Avian flu or a longer-lasting epidemic, such as the polio that struck the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. With global warming bringing more severe and unpredictable weather, and new illnesses emerging, he said, it is challenging but critical to think through all the possible ramifications of each type of emergency.
Groups at the luncheon tackled sample problems such as a severe flu outbreak or a chemical spill in the neighborhood and strategized about such questions as who must be involved in the response and what duties each should have, what to do with on-campus and off-campus students, and what faculty and staff should be instructed to do.
Taking the long view
“In an emergency, you automatically think about what’s happening in the moment and try to deal with that, but it’s very important that you also immediately begin looking toward re-opening and what you need to do to prepare for that,” Morreale said.
“You plan for returning to normalcy—even though sometimes nothing is normal, as in 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina—but you try,” he said. Referring to Albert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he said you must plan to first bring back the basic services such as food, shelter and health care, and decide which of the other services you would restore next—and how to pay for them. These can be decided on a cost-benefit basis or by considering what is most critical and what would be the biggest loss were it not returned.
In the case of a long-term health crisis or physical disaster, how would you make up the time if the university were shut down for three to four months, Morreale asked. And though it is possible to conduct classes online, if faculty could not have access to their offices in the case of a pandemic, for example, and had not placed their course materials on the shells they all have on Blackboard at BGSU, they would not be able to take advantage of this option.
The group heard from a representative of Information Technology Services that ITS is working on providing access to office computers from home through firstname.lastname@example.org and will announce when it becomes available.
Communication becomes essential
In times of crisis, the leadership of an institution must be visible and available around the clock, Morreale said. The community needs reassurance that leaders are prepared and ready to act and will act, he said.
Communication is vital to making people feel secure, Morreale said. Web sites that are kept up to the minute, telephone hotlines manned night and day and media announcements are all important. During the 9/11 aftermath, when electronic communication was completely down, Pace even ran daily advertisements in the New York Times, which, though expensive, kept everyone abreast of developments and were much appreciated, he said.
Morreale reiterated that communication is equally important before a crisis strikes, in the form of collaboration with off-campus organizations, on-campus education and training in preparedness, and familiarizing everyone with the emergency plan. Universities should institute risk-reduction activities into their policies and integrate disaster-resistance concepts into the educational experience, he said.