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Continuity Planning and Crisis Communications — Their Dual Role in Campus Evacuations

University Business, Jul 2009

Recent events have understandably triggered a flurry of crisis preparedness efforts at colleges and universities across the country. Many of these institutions are today breathing easier now that they have incident response plans the size of phone books resting in drawers or populating intranets. They feel confident that in an emergency they can evacuate parties at risk in a timely organized manner — perhaps. It will, however, come as a surprise to more than a few to learn that simply having words on paper or files on a network does not automatically translate to a safe, well-executed evacuation during an emergency; or to an effective communications response to keep varied audiences apprised of the situation; or to maintaining critical operations and getting “back to business” as soon as possible.

Whether an evacuation is necessitated by acts of nature, health risks, or the myriad other events like dormitory fires or local chemical plant spills, there are considerations every university must account for. Among the most overlooked is the integration between the operational/logistical response and the communications response. Typically, there are separate plans for operations and communications, but these functions should go hand-in-hand. During an evacuation, both continuing operations and communications cohabit responsibility for addressing the situation effectively and getting the university functioning again.

Of course, the safety of students, faculty and administrators is the chief concern during evacuations. But realistically, every minute the university cannot provide service results in financial loss for an institution. And, if evacuations are handled slowly or ineptly, or exude even the appearance of incompetence, long-term reputational damage is caused, resulting in fewer donations and fewer prospective students, and in some cases, legal liabilities or regulatory consequences.

Recognizing that there are near-infinite scenarios under which a campus should be evacuated, the timing of which can affect university operations in numerous ways (Do final exams need to be moved— Did the emergency happen during the homecoming football game?). It is impossible to fully prepare for them all. But preparations with general best practices can be done that provides a framework for universities to follow as necessary. Not every evacuation requires a full-scale operation or communications response; it is critical to respond symmetrically.

First, identify the essential functions — those things the university cannot survive without for more than a matter of hours. Such functions might include facilities and utilities, transportation, and IT. There will be far more functions that, while important, are not necessary to continuity in the first stages of an evacuation or in the immediate aftermath — admissions and recruitment, contracts and procurement.

A representative from each of the essential functions should be included in the planning process, and will likely have a role — operationally and perhaps in communicating — during large-scale evacuations.

Determine who is going to be tasked with what during an evacuation. The team should consist of specific and varied university officials who understand what their duties will be if a crisis/evacuation occurs. The team should meet quarterly to ensure that all players are aware of their responsibilities. Include understudies for each role in case, for example, the university president is out of town during an emergency.

But assembling the team is the easy part. Exercising the team takes considerably more effort, and is where sweat equity pays off. Such exercises instill two elements without which any evacuation effort will fail — expectations and accountability. Answer the critical questions — where do students go? Where do they stay? How does this affect our core operations? How do we communicate to the student body? Other constituencies?

When conducting evacuation drills, universities typically only practice the operational part — getting from point A to point B. The extant gap is in practicing the communications portion. Some emergencies — such as where injury or death might be involved — will require frequent statements to the media, or in some cases a press conference. Stage mock press conferences using the official that would serve as a spokesperson in such cases. Even for smaller-scale or precautionary evacuations, there will be media inquiries, and even practicing interviewing is beneficial.

Finally, have stand-by materials ready and current. Fill-in-the-blank documents (press release, dark websites, and university statements) save communications time when time is the scarcest resource. For operations, have a check list accounting for immediate needs — who to contact for what, and how to operate specific systems across the essential functions. And determine how and where concerned parties - parents, alumni, and local authorities - will access information.

There are also numerous relationships to develop before an emergency occurs. Such figures might include the heads of the local fire and police departments, local health authorities, and the mayor’s office. These relationships are dual-purposed in that these officials can both help facilitate operations and dispatch resources aimed at continuing operations, and act as advocates to university audiences through the media, expressing the measures being taken and the effectiveness of the university’s procedure and execution.

Giving background briefings to the media, or letting them, where appropriate, observe exercises are another element often overlooked during continuity planning. Bakersfield College, as just one example, recently implemented an increasingly popular campus wide alert system using text, voice, and email messages. The college gave the media a look at the system, resulting in positive media coverage about their planning. If there is cause to ever use the system for an actual emergency (as there was during the recent Swine Flu outbreak), local media is already familiar with the procedure and the goodwill already exists.

When the tough part comes — the real-life event causing an evacuation — the time spent preparing will be well worth it. However, these events are, of course, fluid and ever-changing, requiring flexibility and agility to adjust to evolving circumstances.

The first task is to help get students and faculty to where they are supposed to go. The location, which should be established in the planning phase, could be a sister university in the system; a local hotel; a community center. The likelihood is universities need several options available. What if the community center is also destroyed by the hurricane? What if the sister university is experiencing the same pandemic?

Concurrently, the university should activate its command and control center, the place decision makers — identified during the planning process — will go to manage the evacuation and continue the operations. The media center should be housed here, too, so information can flow in and out. Any coordination with local authorities, students, and other stakeholders takes place here as well. This center should be located somewhere secure, but still close to the event. It’s important for all those involved — police, fire — to know exactly where to go in an emergency.

As the evacuation occurs, the next question is, who is the spokesperson and what does she say? These questions should have been, in part, answered during the planning stages. Depending on the severity of the evacuation, the spokesperson will be different. If there have been injuries or deaths, the highest ranking university official available should be visible, in tandem with local authorities. If the evacuation is more precautionary, such a high-level spokesman likely won’t be needed. Regardless of the scope of the situation however, all messages need to demonstrate both concern and caution, as well as competence and control.

Where IT and operations and communications meet is in how people can access information about what’s happening, and how often updates are being given. Depending on how events unfold — which will be different for, say, a pandemic risk and several dormitories burning down — university officials must establish expectations on how information will be disseminated and by whom. This means keeping the website running and updated every time there is new information. It means having spokespeople give regular updates, even if that information isn’t necessarily new. And it means having a 1-800 number parents can call and having the staff to support it.

Providing a way for parents to access information is uniquely important. For instance, when a severe fire broke out on the campus of the University of Manitoba in late March, the local police were “flooded with calls from worried parents wanting to pick up their children,” the Canadian press reported. Pre-determining an avenue for parents to get information reduces the strain on local authorities already responding, and is more likely to keep them from coming to campus when that is likely to only complicate matters.

Once the evacuation is complete, communicating the safety status of evacuees and the plan for resuming normal operations is paramount. University spokespeople and operational managers should be working to communicate to students, parents, and the media about the extent of the damage (if any), where students and faculty are and their safety status, and the best estimate of when the university will resume normal operations. Spokespeople should also be realistic in the timeframes they provide. If an update is promised within the hour, make sure to stick with that time or else you risk the media making up their own interpretations of the event. If the event takes place in a city, it might be a good idea to hold a joint press conference with the university, police and mayors’ office spokespeople.

After the immediacy of the situation has subsided, the media, if it is a large scale evacuation, will begin to probe more deeply into the causes and procedures. As such, it is important to have as many questions answered as possible, and still maintain regular updates at a pace that makes sense for the situation. If for whatever reason students will not be able to return to campus for an extended period of time, show that you have a continuity plan that addresses two key concerns — where students will live and how classes and university services will continue. Again, operations and communications must work seamlessly together to apprise not just the media, but the students and parents of what will be happening.

As more and more universities use online and distant learning tools, this could be a safe bet for resuming class even when there is not access to the regular classroom. But to the extent possible, make-shift classrooms work, too. Operationally, having the tools to resume class is a must, and from a communications perspective, it helps build reputation with stakeholders to get back to the business of education rapidly and effectively.

Once the emergency has passed and the university has resumed normal operations, the job still isn’t done. Officials must assess — looking at operations and communications — what went well and what needs to be improved upon for the next time, in conjunction with input from the local authorities that were involved. From this, best practices emerge, and should be shared throughout a university system, region, or state. If there are a number of universities in a major metro area that are vulnerable to the same risks, or universities in a region prone to certain natural disasters, it only makes sense to share information and lessons learned.

And lest universities feel that they cannot spare all the time and resources that go into the planning and preparation because the chances they’d ever be called on to execute is so low, there is an additional benefit that makes it worth doing: understanding the process improves everyday operations. If officials, for instance, understand the essential functions, it is easier to make budgeting decisions and allocate resources. If officials are building relationships with local authorities to corral support in case of emergency, there are certainly other opportunities to leverage those good relationships.

During and in the aftermath of an evacuation, the financial, legal, and reputational stakes are high. Universities should embrace the integrated role operations and communications play in protecting those assets and helping return the university to the business of education throughout the life-cycle of an emergency — from the planning and practice before the emergency strikes to the performance evaluation once the emergency has passed.

Tim Patterson is president of Paratus, an end-to-end business continuity and crisis management consultancy. He can be reached at Matthew Rose is executive vice president and global corporate communications practice leader for MWW Group, a public relations firm. He can be reached at

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