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When Disaster Strikes

An organized continuity plan can help schools and universities bounce back to normal operations after a crisis.

In a typical Continuity of Operation Plan (COOP) for a school or university, the primary objectives are the maintenance of life support and environmental health services. Often, schools and universities focus on responding to emergency events and place less emphasis on continuity planning. As a result, continuity-planning issues sometimes are not addressed adequately. This appears to be particularly true for major disasters that damage multiple facilities.

Most schools or universities have not experienced a major disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane or tornado. Although these types of events are rare, most institutions are at risk on some level. Without a good COOP, a school or university may encounter problems returning to normal operations. If a disaster causes educational activities to be cancelled for several weeks, administrators may have to consider extending a semester or even suspending classes for a semester. Organizing a COOP for such incidents can help schools rebound from an emergency situation.

Plan organization

Rigid organizational structures normally are not found within the educational community. The usual approach is to address a problem, establish a committee to analyze the facts, and make recommendations. This committee-management style assembles a large range of ideas and generally produces satisfactory results. This approach is acceptable in developing a COOP, but will not work effectively for executing a COOP during an emergency.

Quick decisions regarding appropriate responses are necessary in an emergency. Often, there is not time to gather and analyze various opinions. Also, a single individual must be in charge; if that individual is not present, a “chain of command” must be in place. This type of management structure is not common in an academic community.

An Emergency Response Team (ERT) can be established for responding to emergencies. The ERT can use the Incident Command System. This is a recognized, effective management approach used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make tactical decisions during an emergency. The use of the Incident Command System also will help schools work with responding government entities that use the same organizational structure.

Together with the ERT, schools and universities can designate an Emergency Management Team (EMT) to determine the institution's policy. The EMT is an assemblage of senior-level officials that advise and assist in emergency-related policy decisions.

Key individuals

The Emergency Management Team should be promulgated under the authority of an institution's top administrator. All decisions concerning the discontinuation of normal functions, cancellation of classes, or cessation of operations rest with that administrator, or his or her designee.

The incident commander is a senior member of the EMT and is in charge of the Emergency Response Team. The incident commander is responsible for the command and control of all aspects of an emergency. This person must have the authority to make quick decisions in an emergency.

The COOP coordinator is a key member of the Emergency Response Team, who is responsible for the maintenance of the COOP. The COOP coordinator consults directly with the incident commander during an actual emergency.

Developing the plan

Schools and universities should start by conducting a Risk and Impact Analysis (RIA). The RIA will examine various internal and external threats — natural and manmade — to which a school or university is exposed. The RIA also will include a recovery strategy in the event of a major disaster. Once a recovery strategy is agreed upon, details of the recovery action steps can be defined in the COOP.

The COOP should state a time-phase recovery process. After a major disaster in which many buildings are damaged, a campus environment is likely to be dangerous. Regardless of the type of disaster, the recovery steps can be summarized as follows:

  • Action Step No. 1 — Immediate actions (to be completed within 12 hours after the event).

    • Address injuries and immediate dangers.

    • Establish a safe and secure environment.

    • Assess initial damage.

    • Organize and assemble the ERT (if not already accomplished).

    • Establish the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) (if not already accomplished).

    • Activate alternate site plans (if applicable and if not already accomplished).

  • Action Step No. 2 — Initial recovery (to be completed from 12 to 48 hours after the event).

    • Conduct a comprehensive damage assessment.

    • Restore basic services.

    • Contact external resources.

    • Resident students may need to be sent home (if not already accomplished).

  • Action Step No. 3 — Campus recovery (to be completed within 3 weeks of the event).

    • Repair building damage.

    • Secure alternate facilities/Erect temporary structures.

  • Action Step No. 4 — Campus opening.

    • Students return to campus.

    • Classes resume.

    • Student housing reopens.

  • Action Step No. 5 — Plan review.

    • Review action steps taken.
    • Revise procedures.

In the above steps, the times are approximate; the ERT should complete the action steps as quickly as possible. For certain types of disasters with warning periods (hurricanes, floods), some steps can be taken in advance of the disaster.

Those are the basic guidelines. The COOP will need to define the recovery action steps in much more detail.

Organizational units

Each organizational unit with important disaster preparation or response assignments will need to develop an Organizational Unit Plan. Organizational Unit Plans often are developed individually under a “silo approach” rather than under an “enterprise-wide approach.” Under the silo approach, the resulting plans vary widely in terms of organization and detail. It is common to find some organizational units with excellent plans and other organizational units without any formal plan in place.

In many cases, only general guidelines coordinate the Organizational Unit Plans. Responding to emergency events by a school system or university involves a large number of individuals from different areas. Many of these individuals do not work together on a day-to-day basis. In an emergency, many individuals have important areas of responsibility and must be able to coordinate their efforts. Periodic plan exercises involving the entire ERT and key members of the EMT will help alleviate this problem.

The overarching COOP should designate specific responsibilities for each organizational unit. This will ensure that no important responsibilities are missed or duplicated. The COOP also should define guidelines for the development of the Organizational Unit Plan. At a minimum, an outline of an Organizational Unit Plan should be provided; ideally, a template should be developed to assist each organizational unit with their planning needs.

Sidebar: Relationships and Primary Responsibilities

Emergency Management Team (EMT)

  • Makes critical policy decisions (strategic decisions) during an emergency.
  • Reviews and approves all provisions of the COOP.
  • Chaired by the president/superintendent or designee.

COOP Coordinator

  • Consults directly with the incident commander during an emergency.
  • Maintains the COOP documentation.

Incident Commander

  • A member of the EMT.
  • In charge of the ERT.
  • Makes critical management decisions (tactical decisions) during an emergency.
  • Confers directly with the president/superintendent and the EMT during an emergency.

Emergency Response Team (ERT)

  • Executes the COOP as directed by the incident commander during an emergency.
  • Reviews all provisions of the COOP for approval by the EMT.

Sidebar: Incident Response

Schools and universities generally develop good incident-response procedures for most emergencies. Plans for facility evacuations, sheltering of students, and responding to routine emergencies are typically in place. One area that sometimes gets overlooked is an emergency lockdown or shelter-in-place procedure.

Over the last few years, terrorist attacks and hostile intrusions have emerged as serious threats. These threats require schools to carry out shelter-in-place procedures — the exact opposite of a facility evacuation. Terrorist attacks and hostile intrusions can be life threatening, and evacuating a facility or failing to respond properly could be a fatal mistake. Note that shelter-in-place procedures also are appropriate for other situations, such as external hazardous releases and, with some modification, tornadoes.

The ability to communicate instructions during a crisis is central to the effectiveness of a procedure. Communicating accurate and detailed information represents an important challenge. Typically, fire alarms alert everyone to evacuate a facility. At a minimum, some type of siren is needed to alert everyone to a dangerous condition outside and that a shelter-in-place procedure is necessary. Ideally, an intercom system would be available to communicate more detailed information about a threat.

Henderson is president of Disaster Management, Inc., and has 20 years of experience in the management and human resources fields.

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