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Back to Archives | Back to February 2008 Contents 

A Campus Plan for Natural and Man-Made Disasters

By Vincent Brown, Program Specialist, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, D.C.

n September 18, 2003, the Virginia State University (VSU) campus, in Petersburg, Virginia, was hit by Hurricane Isabel. After making landfall, Isabel moved across the central part of Virginia, causing dozens of deaths and widespread wind damage.

During those hectic days prior to the arrival of Isabel, the VSU police force prepared by activating the VSU emergency operations command center and stocking it with food and water. The department developed a contingency plan for rescue operations and a schedule to ensure that necessary personnel in the 58-person department (23 sworn police officers, 21 security officers, 9 dispatchers, and 5 safety and administrative personnel) would be on duty during the hurricane.

VSU also purchased two-way handheld radios in anticipation of losing their normal communications network. The antennae serving the university’s police radios and cellular telephones are located on high towers that are vulnerable to wind damage. When the campus lost power for almost a week, landline telephones, which require electricity, were of no use. Police officers used their own radios until the storm’s dangerous high winds forced them to move indoors. (One lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina is the possibility of communicating by cell phone text messages, which require less bandwidth.) The VSU community fortunately survived Isabel without injuries or extensive damage.

Several months after Isabel, VSU police chief Jimmy Wilson (now retired) attended the first workshop in a series hosted by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The workshops were held in Maryland in 2004, Florida in 2005, and Louisiana in 2006 for participants from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The attendees represented 102 institutions, or almost 100 percent of the HBCUs nationwide. During the workshops, Butch Kinerney, chief of communications for FEMA’s Mitigation Directorate, realized that the participants “were amazed by what they were not aware of” in terms of the potential risks to their institutions and the resources available to address those risks. FEMA officials inferred from this that many smaller institutions such as community colleges and small universities may be unprepared to deal with natural disasters.

The Risks Are Real

Academic institutions in the eastern and southern United States are at risk from hurricanes and floods; the eastern and midwestern parts of the country, from tornadoes; and the West, from earthquakes and wildfires. Actually, almost all of the regions of the United States are subject to flooding and fires, and some areas also may be at risk of landslides, severe winter storms, coastal erosion, avalanches, hailstorms, tsunamis, heat waves, and dam failures—plus man-made emergencies such as terrorist acts and campus shootings.

Natural disasters frequently lead to significant financial losses and disrupt an institution’s teaching, research, and public service missions. After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the campus of the historically black Dillard University was devastated, and tuition had to be refunded for the fall semester. Two months after the hurricane, the university was forced to reduce its faculty and staff by two-thirds due to lack of funds.

In 1994, California State University in Northridge shut down for weeks after an earthquake, costing the school an estimated $380 million. In 2001, a tropical storm left 22 feet of water in the medical school at the University of Texas at Houston, which caused the hospital to close for the first time in its history. In 1997, the University of North Dakota had to relocate critical functions, such as its computer center, after the Red River inundated the campus.

Deaths from disasters and other emergencies also can occur. A 2001 tornado killed two students at the University of Maryland. In 2000, a fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey killed three students and injured many others.

Irreplaceable university archives, research laboratories, and college libraries containing rare volumes are at risk if campus buildings housing these facilities are located in a flood hazard area. Because VSU is built on a bluff, flooding is not a direct risk. Flash flooding in the past, however, has caused fatalities on nearby roads and created a hazard for employees and students who travel those roads daily to and from campus.

Help Is at Hand

During the FEMA workshop in Maryland, Chief Wilson established contact with numerous federal, state, and local emergency managers. He already knew that federal grant money is available for helping an academic institution prepare for disasters and had initiated the process to apply for a $100,000 grant for VSU under the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 for emergency planning.

Decreasing the vulnerability of a campus to natural and man-made hazards through systematic predisaster planning and long-term mitigation actions can reduce loss of life and property damage. Mitigation is defined as a course of actions to lessen the impact of disasters and increase an institution’s ability to return to normal as quickly as possible. A study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council reported that “[each] dollar spent on mitigation saves society an average of four dollars.”1

Through the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, FEMA provides an array of funding for planning projects and mitigation activities, including two grant programs: the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program and postdisaster Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. States are the conduit through which most FEMA funds flow and set the priorities for allocating funds for mitigation projects; for these reasons, state hazard mitigation officers should be considered valuable resources for obtaining additional information on FEMA’s grant programs.

Without a mitigation plan, some smaller academic institutions may be unable to recover from a major disaster. Institutions that have developed a plan and implemented mitigation actions are able to resume operations more quickly, thereby helping them retain their students and faculty. Mitigation activities, which some universities have adopted, include improved building practices, sound land-use management, and flood insurance that protects financial investment in flood-prone buildings. They also include changes like the ones instituted at VSU after Chief Wilson returned from the FEMA workshop.

Mitigation Actions at VSU

After the workshop, the VSU police department worked with campus administrators to develop a continuity-of-operations plan, which is designed to return the campus to normal after a disaster; established an early-warning system and emergency training for students and faculty; developed plans for evacuations and emergency shelters; held a “tabletop” exercise with various disaster scenarios; established a mobile command unit; and conducted a mock search-and-rescue exercise with the county fire department that involved simulating the collapse of a residence hall following a tornado.

All VSU police officers are trained in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The VSU campus of 6,000 students and faculty is located in a mostly urban/suburban county. If a major emergency occurred on campus, the VSU police department would likely need all the help it could get from the county responders. If the entire county were hit with a disaster, however, these resources could easily be overwhelmed with their own problems. Furthermore, rescue and recovery operations should begin immediately after a disaster. If fallen trees blocked certain roads, the campus police force would have to deal with the disaster on its own until county resources could arrive.

Emergency Planning

The emergency plan established at VSU prior to the FEMA workshop was a basic plan addressing natural hazards and man-made hazards such as accidents, hostage situations, and bomb threats. After the workshop, the university developed a continuity-of-operations plan to return the campus to its primary business—education—after any kind of crisis, from terrorist attacks, chemical spills, and shootings to weather-related disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes. VSU is in a vulnerable location: two interstate highways (I-85 and I-95) intersect approximately one mile from the VSU campus; the area contains military and government facilities; and nearby railroad lines transport hazardous materials.

Shortly after the FEMA workshop, the governor of Virginia ordered all state agencies, including state universities, to develop a continuity-of-operations plan by June 1, 2004. At VSU, the executive assistant to the president coordinated the process by convening the VSU Emergency Management Team, a group of VSU senior-level administrators tasked with brainstorming and ultimately developing a viable continuity-of-operations plan for the campus.

Following publication of the continuity-of-operations plan, VSU was notified that it had been awarded the $100,000 grant to develop a hazard mitigation plan for the university. Chief Wilson led this effort by convening a large and inclusive planning committee of decision makers, stakeholders, focus groups, and a cross-section of the university population, with a total of 52 members serving at one time or another. The committee included VSU vice presidents, several department heads, secretaries, clerks, students, professors, and police officers. The students included the president and officers of the student government association.

VSU hired a highly recognized consultant to lead the committee in completing a systematic process of identifying the hazards facing the campus, the vulnerabilities of university buildings and the campus population, actions to mitigate those risks, and estimates of how much those mitigation actions would cost. The meetings took place over a period of approximately four months.

Partnership with Counties for Mitigation Planning

At the FEMA workshops, speakers emphasized the need for academic institutions to establish strong partnerships with their state and local emergency management coordinators. Emergency managers can provide local data for input into colleges’ mitigation plans. In addition, local emergency managers and first responders in cities, towns, counties, or parishes need to be familiar with the campus, especially laboratories that contain hazardous materials or house research animals infected with diseases.

Academic institutions engage in research, instruction, and community service that can and should be leveraged to make communities safer. Towns and cities engage in innovative, cutting-edge risk management and risk communication measures that can be leveraged to increase academic institutions’ safety and enhance employees’ knowledge of, and interest in, disaster preparedness.

After the FEMA workshop, Chief Wilson contacted Lynda Price, emergency manager for Chesterfield County, where VSU is located. She invited Chief Wilson and his deputy chief, Janet Dugger, to sit on the county’s local emergency planning committee, which is developing a hazard mitigation plan. VSU’s plan will be submitted to be included as an appendix to the county and regional plans. “We’re not a standalone entity as we were before,” Chief Wilson said. “We were almost like an island, but now we are part of Chesterfield County’s and the region’s emergency plans.”

The county has a legal obligation to provide emergency services to the university, but with the interaction now formalized, first responders have visited the campus and seen the university’s needs in anticipation of the next emergency. The campus police now know whom to call in a crisis and the services that they can receive. VSU’s representation on the emergency planning committee provides the campus with better access to emergency transportation if students need to be evacuated to safety and to additional emergency shelters that would be set up if needed.

In addition to partnering with county or city emergency managers, colleges and universities must coordinate with state and federal agencies that help fund planning, preparedness, response, and recovery actions. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 requires all communities to develop hazard mitigation plans to be eligible for disaster-related funding. Academic institutions need to ensure their needs are incorporated in these plans to ensure that their buildings are included in damage assessments conducted by FEMA after a disaster.

Academic institutions also need to ensure that they are included in any grant proposals their communities submit to FEMA. The grants can fund development of mitigation plans; retrofitting of structures; relocation of buildings; and programs to increase disaster awareness among faculty, staff, and students. A university can apply directly for funding, but partnering with its community provides another possible funding source.

Planning and Preparation

Developing a predisaster plan is the first step. Implementing it through predisaster preparation and conducting training are the next steps.

VSU installed an early-warning system on its campus with an audible siren that alerts students and faculty to various kinds of hazards. This system is tested at least two or three times per semester. Initially, it was tested every month, but VSU did not want the employees and students to become overly accustomed to the warning siren, so the university reduced the frequency. The test is publicized through the campus radio station and e-mail announcements. The system has an audio capability so that an announcement is made during the test to indicate that it is only a test. The audio capability also enables the university to broadcast appropriate emergency measures, such as seeking shelter if a tornado is imminent.

During the summer of 2006, before classes started, the VSU police collaborated with the Chesterfield Fire and EMS on a training exercise that simulated the collapse of a large residence hall following a tornado. The campus police set up a mobile command unit and cordoned off the dormitory while the firefighters completed a search-and-rescue exercise inside the building. The exercise was monitored on campus surveillance cameras.

In addition, the fire department routinely conducts its own exercises to familiarize its personnel with campus buildings. During the exercises, VSU police officers set up a perimeter around the targeted building and staffed traffic control details.

VSU also conducted an internal tabletop exercise in 2005 shortly after the surveillance cameras were installed. With the Emergency Management Team—the VSU senior-level administration—gathered around a table, various scenarios were presented so that team members could determine what camera footage they would need to see in order to make decisions. The exercise was designed to show how the camera system could assist the team with making collaborative decisions during a disaster. The vice president of academic affairs, for example, could be asked to decide how to relocate the students; the vice president of finance, to determine how to feed them. During this exercise, the police chief briefed participants on the continuity-of-operations plan and the use of the campus video surveillance cameras as a tool during emergencies. The exercise provided an opportunity for decision makers to review the capabilities of the university and obtain a better understanding of how they could respond, using the cameras as their eyes and police radios as their ears.

In another preparation action, VSU transferred possession of a luxury motorhome from the Office of Student Activities to the campus police and retrofitted it to serve as a mobile command unit. In a disaster, the mobile command unit can be driven off campus and plugged into a phone line at someone’s home, with their permission, if communications on campus go down, or it could be deployed to direct emergency operations from various strategic locations. A portable communications system also could be set up in any available building while police officers are patrolling campus and conducting rescue operations.

VSU Mobile Unit

The VSU campus has a wireless environment, but it could become inoperable during a crisis—so the two-way radios could again prove useful. The university’s information technology (IT) department has a “cold site” with backup systems where the IT people can relocate if everything goes down (see figure 1), although reaching the site could be a challenge if debris blocks the roads.

One important element of disaster preparation involves outreach by the university police to the campus and surrounding community. At the beginning of every hurricane season, VSU police provide information on precautions to take and where and how to seek refuge. In addition, the campus police constantly monitor CNN and receive alerts from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and reports from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about natural and man-made disasters. Immediately after shooting incidents involving an educational institution in the United States, campus police broadcast an e-mail to the entire campus advising students, faculty, and employees to be cautious and vigilant. “History has shown us that when one of these incidents happens,” Chief Wilson said, “others happen around the country.”

Response and Recovery

The job of the VSU Emergency Management Team is to manage the university’s response, recovery, and restoration efforts during and after a disaster. In times of disaster, members are to convene at a command and control center. The site selected prior to Hurricane Isabel is in the basement of one of the most solid structures on campus. The thick walls provide a significant advantage; the likelihood of the structure being destroyed by winds is slim to none. However, communication is hampered because of the basement location and solid walls. A battery-powered television set did not work well during Hurricane Isabel even after it was placed near a window and the antenna extended outside. Currently, another building is being remodeled, and the police station and command center will be moved to that location once the renovation is complete. After Isabel, VSU also began purchasing additional generators.

Currently, the university’s administrators are updating the plans for evacuating students, setting up triage if injuries occur, and communicating with families. One possibility for informing parents is a hotline that could consist of a prerecorded message for those who call in or a telephone line manned by a person providing information. In the event of a campus emergency, information also will be posted on the university Web site to help keep families informed.

“Parents sending their children to Virginia State University entrust us with their safety,” said VSU president Eddie N. Moore Jr. “We take this responsibility to heart and have put into place the steps necessary to provide not only a secure environment but also the channels to communicate this plan to students, families, and staff.”

Campus police chiefs across the United States have an opportunity to lead their colleges and universities in planning and preparing for disasters. Their leadership during the response and recovery phases can help ensure that the losses of their institution are minimized and that it is able to survive and continue its educational mission. ■


1Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities, prepared by the Multihazard Mitigation Council for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2005, (accessed December 18, 2007), 5.

Lessons Learned from Hurricanes

During the 113th Annual IACP Conference in Boston, FEMA director R. David Paulison chaired a panel on the lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. He noted that Katrina alone affected an area roughly the size of Great Britain.

The primary lesson learned was that communication was the single largest failure at the federal, state, and local levels. Another challenge was logistics—knowing where supplies are and delivering them to the right place, at the right time, and in the right quantity. The need to verify identities and register people to expedite the delivery of aid was another lesson.

Among the actions FEMA has taken to address these challenges is real-time information sharing at all levels, use of satellite imagery, upgraded radios and frequency management, prestaged commodities, interagency agreements to avoid delays in providing needed services, the ability to register 200,000 people per day online at shelters and in the field, and a home inspection capacity of 40,000 per day.



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 2, February 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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