Institutions of Higher Education: How Special Factors Drive Emergency Planning

Leonard Deonarine

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Jul 6, 2022

Grambling State University in Louisiana appears peaceful and idyllic. And, for the most part, it is. The campus boasts lush, green-grass pathways leading to steeple-topped brick buildings. A close-knit community, it is home to one of the most winningest football coaches in college football history as well as the internationally renowned, high-spirited, Tiger Marching Band. So, what happened in October 2017, when one student shot two others? And again in 2018? And in 2019, 2020 and 2021?

Why University Environments Pose Special Challenges for Emergency Planning

Grambling is far from the only university working to address emergency events. All workplaces, public venues, schools and other gathering spots should have emergency management plans (EMP). University settings, however, present some unique challenges.

  • Many are designed around an open-campus model. The purpose of a college campus is to be easily accessible and inviting to the community, a place where people can learn and grow together. But an open model footprint often also means a porous perimeter, multiple entrances, lack of gates and other barriers, 24-hour accessibility, and sometimes a prominent location in a highly-populated area. Each of these factors alone can make it difficult to prevent and mitigate emergency events.
  • Universities are often big. College campuses are often large, as they sometimes must accommodate tens of thousands of students. The larger the area, the more difficult it is to secure.
  • Campuses tend to have a lot of buildings. Institutions of higher education usually have multiple buildings with unique purposes and designs. And these buildings are often old. Each building presents its own unique set of security challenges and must be evaluated individually – for example, science labs with unique fuel loads, on-premise hazardous chemical storage and high risk of combustion.
  • They can be populous. During an emergency, administrators must often get in touch with thousands of students as quickly as possible via multiple channels. This means collecting students’ phone numbers, email addresses and usernames - whatever it takes to spread the word.
  • Universities often lack resources. Most are nonprofit institutions. The cost of educating a student and maintaining the campus is significant, and administrators may feel they don’t have the resources to invest in best-in-class EMPs.
  • Complexity in responding to multiple catastrophic scenarios. In the planning stages, it’s common to think, “OK, if there is a tornado, we’ll go to the shelter.” But a severe tornado is usually the first domino in a line of many catastrophic events. After the tornado plows through campus, there could be dozens, if not hundreds, of injuries. Buildings may have collapsed with cars tossed about like toys. The power could be out. Police, fire and other emergency medical services may struggle to access a campus strewn with debris in the road. What then?

Planning Ahead Can Protect Lives, Equipment and the Educational Mission

All universities can benefit from an emergency management plan, which is an established guide for how students, faculty and staff should act before, during and after an emergency situation. As FEMA states on its website, “planning provides a methodical way to engage the whole community in thinking through the lifecycle of a potential crisis, determining required capabilities and establishing a framework for roles and responsibilities. It shapes how a community envisions and shares a desired outcome, selects effective ways to achieve it and communicates expected results.”

A Phased Approach – and a Continuous Planning Cycle

How can colleges and universities develop an effective approach to emergencies? First, it is important to ensure that planning reflects the four major phases of emergency management: prevention/mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. Also, emergency management plans should be dynamic, meaning that the EMP should be a living document you update regularly to ensure it aligns with the current campus, campus community, available technology and security best practices.

Finally, administrators must instill the emergency plan in the heads, hearts, hands and habits of the people who need it. Everyone should know their role and exactly how to execute it. This includes all personnel named in your plan as well as the entire campus community.

Extreme emergency events always seem far off and impossible – until they’re not. Start preparing now. Learn more about how Jensen Hughes can help you plan for and mitigate potential threats and emergencies.