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The Four Critical Components of Campus Emergency Planning

Very few components of campus life are as important to the institution as emergency planning.
University Business, Jan 2011

Very few--if any--components of campus life are as important to the institution as emergency planning. A college's reputation and, more importantly, the public safety and security of its campus community are at stake.

Every college and university faces different crisis situations, both man-made and natural, and no institution, no matter how vigilant, can ever accurately predict all possible emergencies it might face. Emergency conditions may arise from any number of current situations that are of everyday concern on campuses including violent crimes, life safety, and environmental.

To effectively address such a complex spectrum of issues--especially with budgets that are more restricted in today's economic climate--requires a proven, systematic approach.

We have delivered campus public safety and security solutions to a wide range of colleges and universities, including Brown University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University and Connecticut College. During our tenure, we have identified four key components of an overall campus emergency plan.

  1. Governance - who are the decision making stakeholders and what are the rules of engagement;
  2. Operations - what are the service metrics and operational tenants the public safety and security organizations have to provide and what are the appropriate standard operating procedures;
  3. Technology - what systems and solutions are required in order to deliver the operational requirements of the public safety and security organizations; and
  4. Facilities - where will the operations and technology be located and housed for effective management.

While emergency planning is unique to each campus, with scores of variables, these fundamentals will provide a roadmap to effective planning and delivery of a comprehensive solution.

First, it is of paramount importance to create a governance process. Since campus emergency planning involves many organizations and complex decision frameworks, both on and around the campus, governance is critical to ensuring organizational alignments. A comprehensive governance plan can substantially increase the potential for an appropriate response and successful outcome.

Drawing on the experience of experts who understand all the pieces is instrumental in putting together a strong and successful plan.

The governance plan should define the roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders, as well as address relevant financial and statutory rules and regulations. The challenge is to achieve consensus on vision, standards, procedures, interoperability, and shared resources.

Governance involves two fundamental structures: internal and external. The internal side includes campus decision-making executives and operational personnel. On the external side are the surrounding community first responders and other

non-governmental entities that would be involved in responding to any crisis situation, such as medical providers and their facilities, transportation services and utility companies as an example.

Integrating the internal and external decision structures is the crucial goal of the governance plan. The senior leadership of the campus administration and the governmental departments should be part of the process--as well as public and private organizations involved in the plan. Open and transparent communication is essential.

A key factor in the governance plan is having a decision process. This creates a structured hierarchy for decisions makers and has an organizational structure that integrates the internal and external resources to make effective and timely decisions.

Building the operational plan entails understanding the capabilities and also the limitations of campus public safety and security first responders: campus communications/public relations, and administration. An operational plan should specifically define how these entities will be involved in a crisis.

Resource planning for crisis escalation is an important element of the operational plan, especially if additional resources required come from multiple sectors outside of the campus or local government surrounding the campus. The escalation and reprioritization of everyday calls for service (workload) have to play a significant part in the operational plan as resources are allocated to the emergency situation. The operational plan component for escalation may require utilizing outside resources to assist in a crisis or backfill a normal workload. While circumstances are highly variable on each campus, the guiding principle is the same: good governance impacts and defines the operational plans.

Once devised, governance and operational plans need to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Tabletop exercises can be conducted annually to determine the viability of the plans and update them as necessary, especially in the areas of multi- agency communication capabilities and information sharing. Tabletop exercises should also include the top decision makers for all the involved stakeholders so that they understand the real time decisions they may be required to make. Utilizing this process will increase the likelihood of an improved response and possibly minimize future liabilities. While no plan is ever perfect, having one is better than not having one.

Just as the governance structure drives operational plans, the operational plans direct the use of technology. Therefore, once the governance and operational plans are in place, the core components of technology should be addressed.

Voice and data communications are the key technology assets to evaluate. Planners need to examine what is in use by the various responding entities--and the all-important question of multi-agency interoperability.

All technology should be carefully evaluated: will it meet current and future requirements; can the legacy technology in place today be used to maximize full value; and can it and planned future purchases advance the vision of where the campus public safety and security leaders want to go? When new technology needs to be deployed, technical advisors who are vendor-independent should be consulted to recommend systems and solutions that are the best fit for operational performance and requirements.

The fourth and final building block of campus emergency planning is facilities. Designated facility areas are needed for managing the response, such as: an emergency operations center; a medical triage area and patient center; safe zones for faculty, staff and students; public/parents access; staging area for resources. Some facilities may have shared response requirements.

Facility design can either hinder or help the emergency response. Consider signage, access control, and communication during emergencies. It is not only command and control, but all the details that matter in an emergency. Careful attention to site selection, building design, diverse connectivity, and redundant systems is critical.

The campus emergency plan must encompass many complex elements. Drawing on the experience of experts who understand all the pieces--governance, operations, technology, and facilities--is instrumental in putting together a strong and successful plan. With today's limited budgets and broader spectrum of threats, the pressure is intense. But employing a proven baseline methodology will provide the best possible security foundation--strengthening the institution's reputation as it protects its staff, faculty, and students.

Lawrence Consalvos is Senior Vice President and Partner of iXP Corporation, a leading public safety consulting and technology company.