President Obama has signed an Executive Order mandating that college and universities have emergency plans. Are we ready? According to survey results published recently in Campus Safety magazine, one in four college campuses do not have adequate support or resources to handle an incident similar to a Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook. Nor are they ready for a natural disaster.
For many campuses, it's a case of finding a way to do what they know needs to be done while resources are tight. By leveraging existing resources, however, it can be done. Colleges and universities can and must find a way.
The key element is quite simple: The leadership of an institution must acknowledge that stuff happens. Given the randomness of previous campus shootings or natural disasters, no-one can reasonably predict whether such incidents will happen at their institution. In the case of Hurricanes Irene, Lee and Sandy, how many of us could have foreseen the magnitude of the impact? Yet we must be prepared to respond. The following is a list of steps we should take.
College and university leaders should examine internal resources to see where they can and should reallocate funds. In 2008, when the economic recession hit, Union College decided to reallocate five percent from each of the vice presidents' budgets to allow the college to avoid lay-offs and provide more financial aid to our students. Much like what occurred in 2008, college leaders need to have these kinds of internal conversations to identify potential areas where resources could be allocated to support emergency preparedness activities.
We must leverage external resources and partnerships. Institutions can partner with local law enforcement agencies to develop emergency response plans. These agencies can play a critical role in helping to respond to a natural disaster or an active shooter on campus. These relationships could allow institutions to avoid having to hire additional individuals to deal with emergencies. In addition, colleges and universities could share with local agencies the cost of any expenses required to train campus safety/police, resident assistants, resident directors, and other on-campus staff.
We should create a college or university-wide committee that will feel engaged and have a stake in the process. Often, individuals may have ideas, viewpoints, and perspectives that might not have been previously considered. Bringing diverse minds to the table is vital when developing an effective emergency plan. In addition, these individuals might have resources which can be diverted in the event of an emergency.
Emergency plans must be multi-pronged. Use multiple outlets when communicating with students, faculty, staff, families and the public. Utilize every possible campus resource and tool, such as using card access technology to lock down buildings, working with local authorities to lock down entrances and exits, and stationing administrators at key points to report back on what is happening in and around those areas. This strategy can be applied to a natural disaster as well.
Schedule campus-wide discussions on the importance of campus safety and what to do during a crisis. College administrators should have regular conversations with members of the campus community to ensure that everyone understands the importance of listening to directions during and after a potential crisis. Often, our natural reaction to a crisis or issue may not be the best for the situation. The more colleges can prepare their communities, the better.
Drill, drill, drill. Develop periodic drills to remind people of what to do in certain scenarios.
Make sure all employees understand that they have a stake in the institution. Encouraging and supporting employees is pivotal during times when there is an emergency. And they will be your support and your greatest asset afterwards. They need to know that they are valued, and that during times of emergencies their contributions are appreciated and needed.
While not directly related to emergency preparedness but just as important, is how campuses deal with mental health issues. The more trained we are at identifying and addressing mental health issues, the better we are able to provide services to students and others in our community. In doing so, we can potentially head off situations before they happen.
Lastly, institutional buy-in is critical. It takes leadership to reallocate and devote resources to ensure that colleges and universities are prepared for a shooting or natural disaster. And it takes the support of the campus community to make it work. Having these conversations with your constituents is not going to be easy but discourse is critical and buy-in is even more important. With the new Executive Order mandating emergency plans, we don't have a choice. But with so much at stake, did we ever?