Surviving a Crisis

When a college or university has to react immediately to a crisis, a plan allows people to respond more effectively.

In the summer of 1997, a devastating storm raged through Fort Collins, Colo., and flooded much of the campus of Colorado State University.

The school sustained more than $100 million in damage, and hundreds of faculty and staff were displaced. But because the school had an emergency operations plan in place, it was able to react quickly to the crisis.

Less than a month later, the school began its fall semester on schedule. The crisis plan did not address every situation that arose in the aftermath of the flood, but it provided university officials with a structured strategy to lead the school back to normalcy.

"The plan is a framework," says Tom Milligan, director of media and community relations at Colorado State. "No crisis is going to conform to a plan. You absolutely have to be flexible."

The shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado last spring were yet another warning for administrators that their institutions can be plunged into a crisis in the blink of an eye.

When a college or university has to react immediately to a crisis, a plan allows people to respond more effectively.

"I always tell people, 'You will have a crisis,'" says Linda Gray, assistant vice president and director of news and public affairs at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Thinking about it, even minimally, in advance will make it easier to deal with."

Campus crises

Colleges and universities-typically more complex organizations than their K-12 counterparts-need to have crisis plans to respond to the countless tragedies and disasters that can occur.

In addition to classroom buildings, a college campus may include residence halls, medical facilities and research labs with potentially hazardous materials and sensitive equipment, and sports arenas where as many as 100,000 people can gather at one time.

A university campus often is the focal point of a city, and a school's crisis could affect the entire community, as well as alumni, students and potential students living far away from campus.

Colorado State's plan notes that the campus is subject to numerous natural, technological and manmade dangers: floods, fires, earthquakes, storms, drought, spills or leaks of hazardous materials, power failures, major accidents in the air or ground, civil disturbances, bomb threats, biological or chemical attacks.

It provides guidance for handling public information, evacuation, law and order, caring for displaced people, medical emergencies, damage assessment and chain of command.

"Warning time to implement this plan varies from little or none to days or weeks, depending on the type of hazard," the plan states.

Tragedy spurs action

The crisis plan that the University of Florida had in place in 1990 was not very structured, says Gray.

Then, the school and the surrounding community of Gainesville were engulfed in a tragic crisis. As classes were about to begin in August 1990, five students were slain. Fear gripped the campus-thousands of students and staff members wondered whether the University of Florida was safe. Hundreds of reporters descended on the campus to focus the nation's attention on the tragedies in Gainesville.

Eventually, life on campus began to return to normal. No more slayings occurred, and subsequently a suspect in the slayings was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.

In the aftermath of the crisis, the university decided it needed to be better prepared to confront such a situation. Gray developed a crisis communications plan that spells out step-by-step who should go where and do what. It includes a list of phone numbers of the university's top officials, student leaders, hospital contacts, and federal, state and local government officials; spaces on campus that could be used for media briefings; and even a list of hotels in the Gainesville area.

In confronting a crisis, a college has to look beyond just the boundaries of its campus. At the University of Florida, three-fourths of the university's students live off-campus.

"We couldn't separate ourselves from our community," says Gray. "We don't work in a vacuum. This affected our whole community."

At Colorado State, the school needed to get the word out about the flood and the status of the cleanup to students who had returned home for the summer, and to potential students who were still deciding whether to attend the university.

The Internet was indispensable in spreading the news about what had happened and how the recovery and repairs were progressing.

"We got an immense amount of traffic on the Internet," says Milligan. "It was an invaluable resource. I didn't realize how important it would be. It became a touchstone for all of the community.

"We had some students who were accepted at more than one school and didn't know if we would be ready in the fall. The Internet helped us get the word to them."

The Internet's capacity to quickly spread information-accurate and inaccurate-makes it doubly critical for a university to make sure it has a reliable way to get the facts to its constituents: students and parents, staff members and the general public.

"News travels so quickly," says Gray. "No longer can universities and colleges think things will happen that will go unnoticed."

After the crisis

Enduring a disaster like a flood puts a college's crisis plan to the test.

"We learned a lot of lessons," says Milligan. "We built relationships. Eventually, the recovery became the story. There was a sense after you came through it, you helped shape the history of the university."

At the University of Florida, the crisis led to beneficial changes as well.

The campus has more lighting and more police on patrol. Students helped create a voluntary inspection plan that encourages more security at off-campus apartments.

"We've come out the better for it," says Gray.

Since 1990, Florida has had to deal with crises, though none as tragic and traumatic as the student murders. The school has had NCAA inquiries of its athletic program, forest fires in the surrounding region, issues of sexual harassment, even a dog that was eaten by an alligator in the school's wildlife preserve.

University officials periodically review the plan to see which parts are working and which need improvement.

"We look to see if anything happened in the past year that the plan didn't help us with and that we need to change," says Gray. "It's a work in progress."

For instance, in anticipation of a power outage, Florida's plan now designates a room in the school's computer data center that would be available for the university's media relations staff to establish emergency operations. The school also has acquired more cellular phones to provide flexibility in a crisis.

Regardless of the event, a crisis plan helps school officials know how to react.

"You need to tailor a plan to your institution," says Gray. "You can't predict. Stuff happens all the time. You'd better be prepared to deal with it."

A website based in Larkspur, Calif., that focuses on disaster recovery, www.disasterplan.com, lists a series of tips that organizations should follow in preparing crisis management plans.

The crisis management plan should include:

-A database with the names, phone/page/fax/cellular numbers, e-mail and postal addresses of everyone on the crisis team.

-Assigned roles and procedures for everyone on the crisis team.

-A multimedia database with critical information on the organization's plants, offices, personnel, products and services that can be quickly accessed and analyzed.

-Commercial databases that complement proprietary databases.

-A means for everyone on the team to access the databases and collaborate from remote locations globally.

The crisis management plan should facilitate rapid responses for:

-Determining the crisis' origin and scope.

-Assisting the authorities with their investigations.

-Monitoring the crisis.

-Acknowledging the organization's responsibilities.

-Taking prudent action to end the crisis.

-Informing all those affected about how to protect themselves.

-Updating those affected continuously via interactive communications and the media.

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