Higher Education and Emergencies: A Few Challenges of a Diverse System and the Importance of Participation

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We want to not only describe methods that will improve your emergency preparedness planning operations, but also provide the leading information for best practices and applications. Recently, the Department of Education’s Readiness for Emergency Management in Schools published a Guide to Developing High Quality Emergency Operations Plans: http://rems.ed.gov/docs/REMS_IHE_Guide_508.pdf. Here, we will explore the benefits of integrating participation in the first steps to creating an Emergency Operations Plan.

Higher Education Institutions produce complex systems of diverse people and locations within a given campus or inner-city campus that therefore provides a challenge to emergency management. What is the best way for higher education institutions to manage all four phases of emergencies and ensure safety?

  1. Colleges occupy multiple buildings over a sizeable geographic area
  2. Working with complex enterprises such as administrative and classroom buildings, residences, hospitals, research and development facilities, sports arenas, and more
  3. Are occupied by differing amounts of diverse people who physically migrate throughout different buildings over the course of the day (faculty, staff, students, tour groups, etc.)
  4. Building materials and infrastructure within a building is most likely different for each structure on campus
  5. Multi-purpose facilities: i.e. Laboratories house sensitive chemical materials in research facilities that may also share classroom and administrative space
  6. Governance is often decentralized and operated individually within each department
  7. Events may bring in an additional tens of thousands more people for a few hours at a time, multiple times per month

These multi-variable complex situations automatically increase an institution’s vulnerability to risks because it makes evaluating risk an all-the-more difficult task to perform when the patterns of use and systems change depending on the semester. Yet these don’t have to be insurmountable and each unit within the institution must be tasked with evaluating its own independent risks and hazards. The importance of creating an Emergency Operating Plan (EOP) must be mandated from the top of the institution and implemented campus-wide in order to adequately reach the total population. Many schools are beginning to require departmental audits for completion of emergency planning, drills and exercises, and consistent crisis team meetings. Huzzah!

In order to create the EOP based on these complex risks and hazards, participation should be utilized to produce a representative sample of the population who would be affected in an emergency.  First, you should know the college’s overall demographics, keeping in mind groups including restricted mobility and mentally challenged persons. Students, parents, staff and faculty should all be represented on the team, “as well as those from diverse racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, including international student populations, so that specific concerns will be included from the early stages of planning,” (p. 7).

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How do you to recruit volunteers for a planning team that addresses concerns and needs for their population? You can advertise for volunteers, describe the importance of school security, and make announcements about upcoming meetings. Have first responders and local emergency managers present to encourage discussion about the risks and hazards, incident command systems, protocol and safety.

Emergency 101 Tip: Hold meetings regularly and start by creating goals for each area extracted from guided discussion within the group. These select people are informing your crisis team. The crisis team is who will set up your incident command system and serve as the contacts for the EOP, and should be paid staff. The participatory group should serve as your Checks and Balances feedback agents. They will make sure that the systems implemented are covering each base at every level, and should review all EOP documents.